In tributes in recent days to Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of The New York Times who died last week at the age of 90, several of his disciples, both Jewish and gentile, called him their “rabbi.” In this context rabbi means one’s mentor or enabler, as in “everyone needs a rabbi.”
Gelb was a great man to be sure, one who transformed the paper in the second half of the 20th century working hand-in-hand with the man who was almost always his boss, A. M. (Abe) Rosenthal. But he wasn’t a rabbi. That title was better suited to Rosenthal. He was the rabbi of The New York Times. Gelb was the high priest, the Aaron to Rosenthal’s Moses.
Rosenthal was two years older than Gelb and always, it seemed, one step ahead of him in the Times hierarchy. Rosenthal was metropolitan editor and managing editor and finally executive editor, the highest job in the newsroom. Gelb held the first two of those jobs but never managed to be top banana at the paper. He retired in 1989.
For Gelb, it wasn’t about the title. As Sam Roberts wrote his obituary, which ran on the front page of the Times, Gelb transformed the paper “by sheer force of personality,” brilliant journalistic instinct and abundant talent.
Both Gelb and Rosenthal were secular Jews. But while Rosenthal had a connection — and even a longing — for the religion, Gelb was more tied to Jewish culture. The one anecdote about Jewish practice in Gelb’s 2003 memoir “City Room,” is about Gelb going to the Actor’s Temple on West 47th Street to say Kaddish in 1960 after the death of his father. “There,” he writes, “I befriended Louis Malamud, the cheery, rotund sexton, who sometimes entertained such members of his congregation as George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Fisher and Red Buttons in a small side room, offering them whiskey and theater gossip.”
Rosenthal’s connection was much deeper than Jewish celebrities. One of his most famous articles, written in 1958 when he was the Times correspondent in post-war Poland, was headlined “There is No News From Auschwitz” and was about the imperative to bear witness to the Shoah. During his years as an editor at the Times his views on Israel were often inscrutable, but after his retirement as executive editor in 1988, he became a fierce advocate for the Jewish state in columns in the Times and later in the Daily News. He was feted at synagogue and Jewish organizational dinners.
Rosenthal’s funeral in 2006 was held to an overflow crowd at Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue. Among the speakers was Elie Wiesel who said that Rosenthal demonstrated that it is possible to love Israel “every bit as much as to love our own country.”
I am sure that Gelb’s many admirers could have easily filled Central Synagogue as well and that Elie Wiesel would have been the first to volunteer to speak. But Gelb’s family decided on a private funeral service with promises that a public memorial for him would be held after Labor Day.
I knew both men, although I cannot remember the first time I met either. That is because I was a college stringer and later copy boy at the Times in the 1970s when they were at their peak of power. Copy boys, the lowest job in the newsroom, literally carried “copy” — unedited typewritten manuscripts and galleys — from editor to editor in the days before there were computers in the newsroom. I placed copy in front of these two men hundreds of times — and served them more than a few cups of coffee — before they ever acknowledged my existence.
When I was bold enough to introduce myself, Rosenthal’s eyes brightened and said, “Oh, you’re the one from Yeshiva. You won’t work on Saturdays.” He assured me that I should keep working at the paper and that we’d work around “the problem.” He hired me on the staff a few years later and told Gelb, then metropolitan editor, to do his best to accommodate my religious needs. I never got the sense that Gelb was happy about the arrangement, but he complied.
That is not to say that Gelb was not his own man. He was Rosenthal’s right arm, and Rosenthal gave him free reign over certain areas, such as the development of the stand-alone sections, like SportsMonday, ScienceTimes and Weekend. One of his projects was called The Long Island Weekly, one of a series of suburban sections that no longer exists. Gelb sent me to Long Island to be one of the section’s first reporters, the perfect job for a shomer Shabbos reporter.
Gelb was also the unmistakable cultural czar of the paper even when he didn’t have the title. As a young critic, he wrote about emerging talent, like Barbra Streisand, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Joseph Papp, the theater impresario. He also nurtured young talent at the Times, including the likes of Maureen Dowd, Anna Quindlen, Samuel G. Freedman and Paul Goldberger. He made (and broke) careers, both in the entertainment industry, and at the Times.
The Times gave Arthur Gelb a front-page obituary that was in many ways befitted one of the paper’s chief executives. It was an appropriate sendoff for a great man. He was a singular figure, not quite a rabbi, but certainly a high priest.