For a professional critic, it was an unusual admission. “Maybe,” said Frank Rich, “I’m a Pollyanna.”
Rich, former chief drama critic for The New York Times (when reminded of his nickname, “the butcher of Broadway,” he quipped: “kosher butcher”), current op-ed page columnist for the paper and senior writer for its magazine, spoke Tuesday at a forum sponsored by The Jewish Week. More than 250 people attended the event, part of a series of public programs sponsored by the paper.
In a conversation at Park Avenue Synagogue with Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish Week editor and publisher, Rich offered optimistic opinions on such far-ranging topics as the state of Jewish life in the United States, the future of print journalism, and Y2K.
Anti-Semitism is a declining phenomenon in this country, despite the spate of attacks on Jews and Jewish sites in the United States this summer, Rich said. “I don’t feel we’re witnessing an anti-Semitic putsch. There is always going to be a group of lunatics, who in some cases are motivated by anti-Semitism.” Several of this summer’s alleged perpetrators had ties to fringe groups with anti-Jewish, anti-minority, anti-immigrant views.
“I don’t think it’s a growing movement,” Rich said, noting that there is no discernible behavior pattern among the recent high-profile killers.
On the other hand, he said, the last half-century has brought an increased Jewish pride and assertiveness, despite a concurrent increase in assimilation.
One example he cited were the differences between the Broadway stage adaptations of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the 1950s and several years ago. The earlier play stressed the universality of Frank. “Often it’s Jews who are making the decisions not to put Jews in visible positions” or to call attention to Jewish concerns, Rich said.
When the play returned to Broadway a couple of years ago, it was “rewritten to make it more faithful to the Franks,” Rich said. “The characters did pray … the Jewish heritage of the characters was accentuated.”
“I think we” — Jews in entertainment and American Jews in general — “are getting more comfortable” with public expressions of Jewishness, Rich said.
A Harvard graduate who grew up in Washington, D.C., he told of a grandmother who used the word “Jew” only in whispers, even at home, preferring the description “a member of the tribe.”
That mentality, he said, “probably” led to the kind of climate that produced the earlier, sanitized version of Anne Frank’s story.
Rich did not dispute statistics that show intermarriage rising in the American Jewish community, but said he disagrees with predictions that the phenomenon will weaken American Jewry. “Jews have survived far worse,” he said. “We don’t know that intermarriage leads to a decline in Jewish practice.”
Asked what long-range issues he considers critical for the U.S., Rich answered “equity” — addressing the unequal availability of quality education, health care and other services. And money.
He cited the popularity of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?,” the quiz show hosted by Regis Philbin on ABC this fall. The show, coming at a time of a robust economy and “28-year-old zillionaires” who have made their fortunes on the Internet, reminds viewers that “a lot of people are left out of this,” he said. “There is a greater gap between them and the wealthy.”
Rich also discussed:
# Print journalism. Despite the growing number of people using the Internet as their main source of news, some readers “are not going to tire of having a physical piece of paper in their hand.”
# The race for the presidency. “The caliber of candidates is not terrible, in either party. These are not flakes. They are people with records.”
# The race for the U.S. Senate seat in New York. “Obviously, there are certain trips one should not make,” he said, an allusion to Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, during which Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian children.
Rich called Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani “two very ambitious people, who on 90 percent of the issues, don’t disagree. Both of them are very smart, very cunning. Neither of them is a team player.” Both, Rich said, have higher ambitions. “I think both of them want to be president of the United States.”Support for Israel would remain strong if either Clinton on Giuliani won, he said.
# Y2K. “I think the whole thing is going to be a bust.” There won’t be a widescale crash of American society, and the threat of computers shutting down the country on Jan. 1 is exaggerated, Rich said.
But, to be safe, he and his family will spend New Year’s Eve in their home, which “is awash in [canned] food.”
Rich also spoke of his love of theater and the fact that he received more criticism from readers for praising plays they subsequently found boring than for savaging productions. He noted that Broadway theaters will be dark this New Year’s Eve, on orders of the city, because authorities cannot guarantee access to the buildings near Times Square, where millions of revelers will watch the millennial ball drop.With The New York Times a half block from Times Square, how will the paper be produced that night? It’s “a question,” he said, “that management is just now starting to address.”