An All-of-a Kind Seminar on Jewish Story
In a four-part series, Sheila Lewis reports on her experiences at the recent Seminar on Jewish Story, sponsored by The Whole Megillah LLC, together with the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Writing a novel is anything but an overnight process. Investigative journalism can be slow too. Sam Norich, the second keynote speaker, a journalist and Editor at the Jewish Forward, shared the slow and groundbreaking journey of reporting on hidden abuse at Yeshiva University (the esteemed Jewish institution). He made a case for the measured approach to building Jewish story taken by the Forward, (an nfp, or “never for profit”). Despite its small staff and size, the Forward has been nominated heavily for awards, last year, for six awards. The New York Times, with “400x” the staff, was nominated for eight. “Good journalism is telling the Jewish story from every angle, from two sides of an issue…Tell it the way that seeks versions of all relevant sides.” Sam claimed that, unlike Israeli journalism, which is almost always partisan or political, the Forward tried to stay truthful, inquiry-based, “show me,” skeptical. An unusual aspect of the Forward’s reporting is use of first person as in Josh Nathankadis’s account of a visit to Spain, and Anna Goldenberg’s visit to Theresienstadt. The Forward’s ethical stance guided the report “Students Claims of Abuse Not Reported.” Norich, along with editors and writers Jane Eisner, Larry Kohler Esses, and Paul Bergier, broke the story on sex abuse at YU that had been covered up under Rabbi Norman Lamm’s administration, presumably to save religious face. Norich described Bergier’s visit to Lamm’s apartment to ask questions about what took place in the 70s and 80s: “First he said No. Then he turned around and said Wait. Then we sat and talked, and he answered questions.” When the interview was published, the Forward was denounced by FailedMessiah (among others) for “ambushing” Rabbi Lamm. “Then Paul wrote a first person article about what really happened. Lamm was lucid…” Norich went on and told us the outcome of this report. After six months, in June 2013, Lamm retired. Many events ensued, including an investigation conducted by independent lawyers. A $380 million lawsuit was adjudicated in favor of YU (due to statue of limitations). However, the power of this story led to many other cases coming forward. Norich was very clear that “the task of independent newspapers is not to bring perpetrators to justice, but to bring institutions and decision making to the light of day…that speak for us…lead us, represent us…our task is not to be their stenographers, but to tell the story we want to hear.”
The poetry panel took up where Norich left off, as three poets, Hila Ratzabi, Amy Gottlieb, and Jason Schneiderman, shared personal as well as broader social visions when reading from their work. Jason joked about his training as a young Jew, writer, and military brat, and how he and his family were often the only Jews at Evangelical Seders. “Poetry was the place I could balance everything, pay attention to what was or wasn’t being said.” Flash forward to his adult years as an accomplished poet and as a founder and editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, for and by members of the greater Bellevue medical community. The Review is a labor of love, “to give voice to people who may never have thought of themselves as poets or writers,” and yet have powerful journeys of healing to share. “Neither acceptance nor rejection is a big deal.” What a great mantra, I thought. “And I do get back to writers about their submissions as soon as possible.”
Hila explored the space between truth and untruth in her writing, and intrigued me with her line, “we don’t know, they won’t tell us.” Published widely in anthologies as well as on line, Hila plugged Storyscape Journal, where she is editor in chief and poetry editor. She suggested writers and poets start with a reach when submitting work, even if “you have to give a donation to enter a contest.”
Amy Gottleib described a successful career in communications (notably, at the Jewish Theological Seminary) and her beginner’s attempts at writing poems—“they’re short.” While practicing her craft, Amy was eventually able to write more poetry and a first novel. She discussed the benefits of writing across genres.
While it’s been decades since I was a high school poetry editor, magic poetry dust filled the air, and I just might get back to writing it, thanks to this panel’s passion.
Next in the series: Reportage on the memoir panel.
About Sheila Lewis
Sheila Lewis writes for children and has written educational curriculum for national organizations. She teaches meditation and related topics at the JCC in Manhattan, teaches in several Hebrew Schools, where she also runs Jewish children’s book clubs.