Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Why I Won’t Boycott the Times

On most weekday mornings I read the New York Times at about 6:30, an exercise that begins with a visit to the obituaries to see whether anyone named Marvin Schick is reposing in that hallowed space. On the day that he shall be there, I do not expect to read on. Fortunately or not, that fate has not been mine and so I do read on, first tarrying a bit at the obituary notices to determine whether someone I know has passed away.

That’s what I was doing soon after the Rabbis Lookstein announced with appropriate fanfare a ten-day boycott of American Jewry’s favorite newspaper. To my astonishment, the first notice was placed by Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, which is their synagogue. On a more recent day, there were two obits by KJ and the Rabbi Lookstein names were once more on display. I know that both father and son are very honorable men and I would not want to accuse them of hypocrisy or even inconsistency. But I believe that they are missing the main opportunity.

If the aim is to punish the NYT in the pocketbook, there’s no better tactic than boycotting the obituary page where every word costs dollars. Our multitude of organizations spend a fortune on these notices, which are about the most expensive spot in the newspaper. I learned how costly years ago when in a rare moment of empathy for the many dead organizations that are members of the Presidents Conference, I called the Times to see how much it would cost to provide each organization a final resting place in the newspaper. I reckoned that these groups were staying around only because no one had told them that they had died.

The lady in the obituary department asked, “when did these organizations die?” I said that “some passed away in 1948 when Israel was established, others years later, but all had not been among the living for quite a while.” She wanted to know why I had waited so long to mourn these losses, to which I responded, “because I was waiting for them to wake up.“ I was told that the notices would be accepted, provided that I paid in advance. And so I prepared an elaborate text for each, giving something of its history and long-forgotten achievements. The bill amounted to more than a half-million dollars, a figure that was so shocking that I quickly decided that it would be cheaper (at least for me) to allow these organizations to continue to pretend that they are among the living.

Why are the Rabbis Lookstein being selective in their boycott? I know that it isn’t easy to boycott the obits in view of the desire of so many Jews to be memorialized in the newspaper. The Rabbis certainly cannot suggest that no congregant pass away during the ten-day boycott period, else the synagogue will be forced to place the obituary notice in Der Yid and not in the paper that has all the news that's fit to print.

While I’d be happy to join in an extended, even permanent, period of abstinence in obituary-placing, I plan to maintain my regimen of reading the NYT. How else am I to know the daily capacity of New York’s reservoirs or who Maureen Dowd is barbecuing. How else am I to experience the unique connubial compatibility of Mr. and Mrs. Deborah Sontag? Two hostile hearts beating as one.

Isn’t it wonderful that the Times places Jerusalem in Asia, along with Bejing, New Delhi and other exotic places, rather than identifying it as occupied territory?

It bothers me not at all that the Times’ Middle East coverage raises the blood pressure of many Jews. This is a vital medical service for me and thousands of other Jews whose aging bodies need something extra to get the blood flowing to distant parts. Isn’t it better to have Jews with ruddy complexions, raring to go and jumping around after they read the Times than to settle for a sedentary life on Collins Avenue waiting for a booking at Riverside Chapels?

For all of our primal kvetching, we Jews haven’t appreciated the Times or done enough to win it over. We haven’t thanked the writers who give special attention to the Orthodox, whether the story is about a minor communal fracas or someone accused of a crime. When not long ago the Times reported that 40 people had been arrested in a criminal conspiracy and identified only one of the accused who was a Chassid, the newspaper was telling the world that only the Orthodox are legitimate Jews, that the rest – Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. – are all bogus and therefore are not to be given legitimacy.

It’s Rabbi Eric Yoffie who should be complaining and so should all of the other non-Orthodox who are being neglected. Could it be that Rabbi Yoffie whose youth groups are boycotting Israel does not want to get around to the more important business of boycotting the Times because the Sulzbergers, good Protestants as some of them are, remain members-in-good-standing at Temple Emanuel?

Israel certainly hasn’t done enough to deserve the Times’ support. If the Jewish State would just become a totally gay society, I am certain that the Times would embrace it warmly, man to man so to speak, and give it all of the support that it deserves and maybe some that it doesn’t.