Media Circus: You're finished

A slow summer leads a city magazine to cry wolf.

By Seth Gitell
Published August 7, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

a Holocaust. The rabbi in New York magazine was talking about a Holocaust. Only he wasn't referring to the slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II. Rather, he was referring to the fact that American Jews have seen the rate of intermarriage rise to greater than 50 percent in recent years.

The rabbi, Ephraim Buchwald, the founder of the National Jewish Outreach Project, was at the center of the July 14 New York magazine cover story headlined "Are American Jews Disappearing?" Though the Gotham weekly depicted the rabbi as the consummate "Modern Jew" and devoted a full page to a photo of him in a tallit, immaculately tailored suit and neatly trimmed beard, it was his words, printed in screaming bold letters underneath his picture, that grabbed me.

"There are no barking dogs and no Zyklon-B gas, but make no mistake, this is a spiritual Holocaust," pronounced Buchwald. "The American Jewish Community is committing suicide."

The Big Apple's weekly arbiter of the hip and the hot had found a new way to stir up some summer controversy (a year and a half ago, it was a "personal inquiry" by Philip Weiss asserting that anti-Semitism had practically vanished). American Jews, the magazine let it be known, are at the very brink of extinction, going the way of New York night life, which the magazine had -- earlier in consumer-conscious new editor Caroline Miller's reign -- declared under siege as well.

Buchwald, actually a pretty reasonable person, and many of the others prominently featured in the article came across like demographic Meir Kahanes. Instead of packing pistols under their suit jackets and keeping Krugerrands in their pockets, these people were drumming up old Jewish fears and anxieties and getting good play on the glossy pages of New York.

Instead of a balanced, thoughtful, article on a complicated subject, New York went out of its way to emphasize the sensational, giving the impression that the current crop of American Jews were a bunch of doom-and-gloom wackos.

Buchwald was joined in his grim assessment by a young friend and acolyte, Steven Eisenberg, an investment banker, who hosts gatherings in which young Jews can meet each other and learn about Jewish culture. Eisenberg also sees himself as combating another destruction of the Jewish people. "When I was young, I used to ask my grandmother how people did so little during the Holocaust. 'How could it happen?' I remember asking," Eisenberg told New York's Craig Horowitz. "Well, when my kids ask me where were you at the end of the twentieth century when the Jews were washed away, I won't have to squirm in my seat."

While the article went out of its way to play up the negative aspects of American Jewish life -- the magazine's cover pictured a Star of David made of sand, the grains of which were blowing off into the wind -- it couldn't help but refer to some of the trends that give many Jews hope, such as the large crowds showing up at introductory Jewish education events. At the same time, it seemed to grant people like Esther Jungreis, the founder of Hineni, and Buchwald an importance and stature greater than their relevance. Wrote Horowitz, contrasting the strong-mindedness of the pair with the ambivalence of a Jewish communal official: "Esther Jungreis and Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald aren't plagued by ... doubts." Plus, the article provided plenty of color. Jungreis was described as "a kind of Jewish Tammy Faye Bakker (minus the false faith and fake eyelashes)" and Eisenberg as "so revved up he seems about to levitate out of his chair."

What the article failed to do is give any sense that normal people -- those who don't share the Afrikaaners-trekking-through-the-Veldt worldview of Buchwald and Jungreis -- might be rethinking assimilation as well. For instance, one of the most significant trends to hit American Jewish life in decades is the upswing in Jewish children's attendance at day schools, which are bursting at the seams, buying new land and building new buildings. This received barely a mention in the Horowitz piece.

Why bother to report on day schools when there are much more dramatic characters to quote, like Elliot Abrams, whom the magazine pictured grim-faced and preppy in front of three American flags? Abrams, the former Reagan administration official implicated in the Iran-contra scandal, who is repackaging himself as an expert on Jewish affairs, is peddling a new book called "Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America" (Free Press). "American Jews really ought to rethink their attitude toward religion," Abrams told the magazine. He believes Jews should forge closer ties with his pals on the Christian right.

Farther down in the piece, Horowitz quoted somebody staunchly opposed to the Christian right and Abrams, and firmly committed to getting his voice heard: omnipresent TV legal sage, Harvard Law professor and O.J. Simpson defender Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz has just published "The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century" (Little Brown). While New York neglected to include a photo of the Dersh's own Talmudic mug, it quotes him as giving Jews a 50-50 chance of survival in America. But Dershowitz clashes with his former student, Abrams (who lambasted Dershowitz's book in the Weekly Standard), in insisting that there's still a place for secular Jews like himself. "My mission is to try and preserve a sense of Judaism for the many Jews I know who have doubts about the supernatural," Dershowitz said.

After having read the article, I couldn't help but compare it to the magazine's big piece on New York's night life last spring. The same dashes of color -- an illicit massage here, a visit to a thriving synagogue there. It's all part of the magazine's provocative approach. Sure, Horowitz quoted some voices of reason too -- such as the New York United Jewish Appeal federation's John Ruskay and Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee -- but they're not flashy like Rabbi Buchwald and Elliot Abrams.

What's more, people who know Buchwald well told me they were surprised that he came across so dark. Either he was trying to "shock" the tony magazine's readers into action or New York had goaded him into making things sound worse than they are. At any rate, the result is the same. The "Goodbye Columbus" Jews who read New York may have gotten a jolt. These residents of Park Avenue and Riverside Drive, Westchester County and Greenwich, Conn., received notice that Jewish identity requires a bit more than giving a few bucks each year to the UJA and keeping copies of Leon Uris' "Exodus" on their bookshelves next to the Philip Roth.

And New York magazine will soon be back on track, keeping its readers abreast on the "foods of summer" and "what's new in the Hamptons" and other such nonsense. Maybe it should stay that way.

Seth Gitell

Seth Gitell is the national editor of the Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper in New York.

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