From Mexico City To The New York Times
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Gala Journal 2019

From Mexico City To The New York Times

Bret Stephens on journalism, Jewish identity and the importance of having a ‘historical sense.’

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Bret Stephens.
Bret Stephens.

Regular readers of Bret Stephens’ columns recognize his engagement with history, which underlines his graceful prose. He credits his father, who, in addition to his business career, taught history at the University of the Americas in Mexico City. While driving Bret to school, the older Stephens would work out his lectures, delivering 45-minute discourses to his son.

“I soaked it in,” Stephens, soon to turn 46, tells The Jewish Week in an interview.

“I think having a historical sense is vital to a more productive understanding of the present,” he says. The Pulitzer prize-winning columnist worries about young people who don’t pay attention to history, adding, “It’s very hard to connect the dots when you don’t know where the dots are located.”

Stephens has been an Op Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2017. Prior to that, he was deputy editorial page editor and a foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and previously editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post.

“We are pleased to honor Bret for his journalistic achievements, especially his column in The New York Times, which informs and educates readers but also challenges them to think in new ways about the pressing issues of the day,” Stuart Himmelfarb, president of The Jewish Week, says.

“However, there’s more: We are thrilled to honor Bret as a great friend and partner of The Jewish Week. He meets with the students in our Write On for Israel program and has appeared in numerous community forums, where he is always thoughtful and insightful. For that, we are deeply appreciative.

Stephens writes a lot about politics and world events, and also has wide interests in literature, philosophy, culture and business. More than a decade later, I remember a piece he wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the Chrysler Building.

Rarely does he know more than a day in advance what he’ll be writing about in his biweekly columns. He says that’s relatively new, because of the accelerating pace of news, when one day’s events upend the previous day’s.

As for the nuts and bolts of writing, he usually sits down and writes a piece from beginning to end. He spends time during the week reporting, reading, jotting down thoughts so that on the mornings he reserves for writing he can say, “Here’s a news peg, and here’s some connected relevant thoughts as it were, collected in jars, and they are the ingredients of a column.”

“It’s hard for me to write a column unless I see how I can lead it,” he explains. “Every columnist has a different style. But for me, my leads are very important. You have an obligation to do everything you can to grab the reader by the throat. My conclusions are also important to me — they should tidy things up and sound like conclusions. It’s a very idiosyncratic style.”

Stephens joined the Jerusalem Post in 2002. Before that, he had been based in Brussels for the Journal and when he was offered the job, he felt it was “an opportunity not to be passed up, at a relevant moment.” The three years he spent living in Jerusalem as editor were “crowded, emotional, vibrant, terrifying times.” He felt that he grew up as a journalist and writer. And, he met his wife there.

Writing about Israel now, he says, “I don’t approach the Israel story as a proud Jew who likes the country, although I am. I report and approach it as an honest journalist who is looking at a set of facts, being thoughtful about what those facts tell us.”

Stephens is the descendent of Jewish immigrants on both sides: His paternal grandfather was born in Kishinev and his father was born in Mexico City; his maternal grandmother was born in Vilna and his mother was born in Milan. In a recent column, “Blessed Are the Refugees,” he described how his mother and grandmother were able to enter the U.S. in 1950 “with only $7 between them, but without the weight of fear on their backs.”

On his mother’s side, he is a descendent of a well-known rabbinical figure, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who was a leading Talmudic authority in Vilna and died of cancer in 1940.

His father’s father left Kishinev for America after the 1903 pogrom, and moved to Mexico City in the 1930s, where he founded a company. There, he met his wife, a Jewish painter from New York City who was close with Diego Rivera and Frida Kalho. Bret was born in New York City, but moved to Mexico City as a toddler as his father was helping to run the family business. He grew up speaking Spanish, moving between Mexico City and the countryside, and returned to the U.S. at 14 to attend boarding school.

Recalling his years in Mexico, he says, “It was a great blessing in my life, that I grew up speaking a foreign language, inhabiting a different culture, seeing the U.S. from the outside. I appreciate things in the U.S. that most Americans don’t, like clean drinking water, cops that don’t ask for bribes when one is pulled over, the expectation of competent medical care. There’s a lot we take for granted.

“Growing up in Mexico made me more of a patriot,” he adds.

These days, he travels a lot, speaks frequently and will be teaching a course at the University of Chicago, his alma mater, on the art of political persuasion. The author of “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” (2014), he also writes a column for Die Zeit in Hamburg (he writes in English and his mother-in-law translates).

Talking about the state of journalism, he says, “There will always be a need for reliable, authoritative and in-depth journalism, and that will be true no matter what technologies journalism is distributed through, and I think that the newsrooms where I’ve worked that are well positioned to do that have a bright future.”

He mentioned a few trends in the business that concern him, including “the way in which too much that is advocacy journalism masquerades as objective journalism.” He continues, “We have culturally been losing the art of intelligent skepticism.” And, as funding for newspapers has shifted from advertisers to subscribers, he believes media outlets have become too attuned to the desires, tastes and prejudices of subscribers.

When it comes to Jewish publications, he says, “They can do interesting things. There’s a lot of news that happens in those spaces that for a good reason gets passed over by national papers, because it doesn’t always rise to a national story, and it’s important — it matters to the everyday lives and cultural and political concerns of a dedicated community of readers. It’s important that that job be done well and intelligently at the highest possible level.”

“Publications like The Jewish Week and Tablet and Commentary have a real niche to fill and can thrive if they are filling that niche well. When they do it well it’s indispensable and irreplaceable.

He describes himself as minimally Jewish when it comes to observance, but his family goes to “a fair number of Shabbat dinners,” lights candles on Shabbat, and, when they attend services, go to Chabad.

When I ask about whether he personally experiences anti-Semitism, he pulls out a recent letter from a reader that is particularly vile.

“My friend and colleague Bari Weiss has written powerfully that the answer to anti-Semitism is to dive deeper into our Jewish identity, not by way of having an insular identity, but having a proud one. I’m not the most observant Jew, that’s for sure, and, despite my ancestors, I am far from the most knowledgeable one.

“I don’t come to work thinking ‘What is good for the Jews?’ But I feel that my identity is certainly not trivial, especially at a time when it’s under genuine and mounting threat. One of the things that I need to fight for is my right not to have to choose, between being an American and being a Jew, and being pro-Israel and being pro-American. I think that’s essential to the freedom that I have the right to expect as an American and advocate for as a columnist.”

“In that vein,” he says, “the award and recognition from The Jewish Week is humbling and sweet.”

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