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A Newspaper’s Loving Embrace of a Rowdy, Divided City
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Jewish Week Turns a Page

A Newspaper’s Loving Embrace of a Rowdy, Divided City

The Jewish Week's managing editor looks back on the big and not-so-big stories that told a community's story

Rifka Rosenwein and family.
Tania Amaro
Rifka Rosenwein and family. Tania Amaro

A former colleague of mine — we used to joke, gallows-humor style, that we were the last generation of print journalists — told me a classic newspaper story some years ago. It was back when the internet was beginning its marauding run through American newsrooms and laying waste to newspapers’ advertising revenue. We may have seen the writing on the digital wall, faint at that time, but enough to make the story all the more poignant.

The tale involved my colleague’s friend, a loyal subscriber to the paper we were working for at the time, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and to the metropolitan daily in town, the storied Baltimore Sun. The woman said that she not only liked the feel of a newspaper in her hands, ink smudging the tips of her fingers, but she loved to hear the “thump” at the door when the paper was delivered as the sun was coming up.

For those of a certain nostalgia-soaked generation, that “thump” — solid, tactile, substantial — contains within it the log-splitting whine of the lumberyard and the keyboard pecks and righteous yawps of reporters and editorialists and the drone of the pressroom and the rumble of the delivery truck over city streets and rural lanes.

In April 1997, the Red River, which runs right through Grand Forks, N.D., overflowed its banks in terrifying fashion. The 500-year flood touched off devastating fires in downtown Grand Forks, home to the Grand Forks Herald newspaper. Residents scattered. A makeshift newsroom was created. Somehow, and heroically, as the river raged and the fires burned, the staff of the Herald managed to get a newspaper delivered. “Thump.” The headline on April 21, biblical in its sweep, was memorable: “Come Hell and High Water.” The Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its reporting during the catastrophe. Its publisher, Mike Maidenberg, said, “We heard, by virtue of the fact that the newspaper was around, the community was still around. That was remarkable.”

Elicia Brown and family.

So if you’re up at the break of day at the end of this week, the thump at the door this time around — an awful but increasingly frequent sound in American journalism these days — is the sound of this newspaper suspending its print run after 50 years.

The paper you hold in your hand (though it arrived through plague rather than flood and fire) is an attempt — one made week after week after week — to encapsulate and wrap a set of loving arms around a rowdy, divisive, ideologically split but occasionally unified Jewish community. It may be the only such place where that community comes together — to hug and to brawl. We’re Abraham’s tent, flaps open on all sides.

We’ve had our share of big stories over the years, and shined a light into some dark places in the community.

But it’s the small, close-to-the-ground stories that get at the fabric of the Jewish community and help reveal what a community newspaper can be. When Gary Rosenblatt and I came to the paper in 1993 from Baltimore, we carved out a regular space for these intimate, personal stories — an essay slot we called the Back of the Book, the last word, so to speak, in a given week’s paper.

Down through the years on the back page, Susan Josephs wrote honestly and exasperatedly of her travails, before the era of swiping right and swiping left, as a 20-something single Jewish woman in the city. In often funny and bittersweet columns, Orli Santo walked a razor’s edge between her identity as a transplanted Israeli and an American raising Jewish-Israeli-American children; she opened a rare window on Israelis living in New York. Ted Merwin roamed far and wide in his “Culture View” column, from the deli and all its overstuffed Jewish symbolism to the Broadway stage, whose Jewish stories moved him to the core. Merri Ukraincik wrote lyrically about Jewish time and Jewish ritual and Jewish memory in a family-centered column where the past and present constantly rub up against each other.

Two writers came to define the Back of the Book — Rifka Rosenwein and Elicia Brown. For seven years in her “Homefront” column, Rifka rendered in exquisite detail the life of a 30-something Modern Orthodox mom and her family making their way in suburban Teaneck. From her perch on the Upper West Side, Elicia, in a column called “All She Wrote,” sketched the promise and the peril of raising a liberal, observant Jewish family where assimilation lurked just outside its door. Faced with cancer diagnoses, both Rifka and Elicia bravely shared their struggles, in memorable fashion, in the back page slot. There was humor, there was sadness, there was the fear of the unknown and always, there was the well-turned phrase — two writers at work crafting sentences right to the end. Rifka died in 2003; she was 42. Elicia died in 2017; she was 48.

One Back of the Book essay has stayed with me for years, both for its poignancy and for what it may say about the power of a community newspaper. The writer, with the help of a Jewish senior outreach group, befriends an elderly man who had become estranged from his family and was living out his last years alone. They meet for months, the writer coming to learn something of the man’s past and to understand his bitterness. One day, the writer comes for his regular visit and is told the old man has died, and he eventually finds out that, with no family, the man is buried in potter’s field on Hart Island. A sad ending, for sure, but the bonds that grew between the two men somehow dulled the loss.

Not long after the piece appeared, a rabbi, moved by the story, contacted the paper. He wanted to give the man a proper Jewish burial, and so with permission the man was disinterred and taken to a Jewish cemetery on Staten Island. A group of rabbinical students recited prayers and, according to custom, shoveled dirt — “thump” — into the new grave. The old man was home.

And so, we’re closing up a home, the one that has existed for all these years in these ink-stained pages. “Soul to soul our shadows roll,” Bob Dylan sings, “and I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.” Well, the deal has gone down for the print edition of The Jewish Week; thanks for being with us for what was a good, long run. But we’re not homeless. Join us at our website, where the next chapter of The Jewish Week will roll on. The digital tent flaps are rolled up and open on all sides. Cross the threshold — don’t you hear the “thump”? — and welcome back home. 

Robert Goldblum was the paper’s managing editor from 1993 to 2020.

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