By Larry Gordon
It is impossible to anticipate which columns over the course of a year will resonate with and make an impression on people. I write about 100 articles a year—usually two a week, as you know—but while I can probably write a story about how each story evolved, the fact is that in the course of any year, and especially this year, some stand out more than others.
Of course, the more recent articles are fresher in my mind, but based on what people say to me or comment upon on different occasions, sometimes it is just plain surprising that some innocuous subject matter can make such an indelible impression on people.
I was perusing our online archive which contains all the papers of the past 20 years and displays them with a click of a fingertip. I also have a stack of newspapers near my desk from the last ten weeks; they are only there because I have not gotten around to throwing them out or I just can’t bring myself to dispose of them yet.
I made a list of about eight stories or subjects that I wrote about at some point during the last year. Very often I reread these stories in print once the paper is out and it is only then that I sometimes realize that I could have made a point in a more detailed or improved way than I did. Sometimes it is only at that point that I realize I had an additional dimension of the story in mind but forgot to include it. Maybe that is just life and tip-toeing on the journalistic high wire.
It occurs to me that I never did this before, stopping to take stock and review what we’ve covered or written over the last year and take the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in those stories. I mean, don’t misunderstand—the stories are complete and tell a full tale; I just think that in some cases I could have said more. Of course, we also have a finite amount of space so you’ve got to stop and just bring it home at some point.
So while I cannot say I have a favorite story, there are some subjects that I enjoy writing about more than others. When I’m working on a story that I really like, the words flow more freely, the letters get tapped into the keyboard quicker, and there are less intermissions with the recurring thought of “What’s next?”
One of those more recent stories was about the young man we met a few years ago in Israel whom we hire to drive us around the country since it became impossible to traverse Jerusalem by car or find parking in the city. For some reason, people have taken to the person of Bentzion Kuzin, a 40-year-old man from Bnei Brak who now lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children.
I don’t know what it is about him that made such an impression, but maybe it is that aside from running a small transportation empire he is a one-man chesed machine who also drives like a maniac. He comes from a big family—I think he has 15 siblings—and if he cannot pick you up or meet your schedule he says he is sending one of his brothers. The only thing is that sometimes the replacement drivers are indeed his brothers and sometimes they are not.
I wrote about him eight weeks ago, and just about every week one or two people stop me to say that they like the story about the driver. Just this past Shabbos someone told me that he calls him when he is in Israel and feels the same way about him.
Here’s part of the story that I never mentioned. Bentzion has two developmentally challenged brothers but I do not know what the issues are. They live with his mother in Bnei Brak. I only mention that because at the end of the day he never tells me how much I owe him. He says that I can pay whatever I want and that if it is more than that day’s excursion is worth, the extra money will “go to my ‘broders.’” I love when he says that, which of course makes it impossible to overpay him.
Another topic that resonates with people that is easier to understand is when I write about my life as a child in my parents’ home in Brooklyn and the odyssey involved in visiting their gravesites these days in Eretz Yisrael. I think people relate to that because many of us are in that same matzav today. I try to always make a point of not referring to my parents in past tense because my dad is always my dad and my mom is always my mom, and I’m sure you feel the same way.
I think about them often and I also feel that these words—these millions of words in the course of a year—are a tribute to them and especially to my father who worked as a Yiddish journalist for five decades. As you may have noticed, I work with Mrs. Samuels, a young woman who translates my father’s articles for me from Yiddish to English. Back in July she sent me a note about a certain article she was translating. She wrote, “Boy, did your father have a way with the written word. He was a prolific writer who had his finger on the pulse of EVERYTHING that was happening in the Jewish world.”
So you see, I have a lot to try to live up to.
Of course, several articles this year were dominated by the Biden–Trump election (that was a long time ago), and of course the ups and downs of dealing with the pandemic on so many levels.
On one occasion I had a bit of a rough ride, as you might recall, when a photo ran on our front page of a smiling local personality and friend on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. It was news coverage at an event that was taking place as we went to press. If I was as careful as I usually am, or if I had known more about what was developing, I would have passed on that photo even though it was important breaking news at a controversial time.
The criticism was blistering and unrelenting. My few and usually insignificant critics thought that they had me on the ropes and would be able to score a technical knockout. I tried again and again to explain that I was covering news and that it is unfair and wrong to insist that by virtue of printing a photo or story, I am endorsing or advocating for this or that position on an issue. Last week we featured a front-page photo that depicted the way arson in Israel forests had destroyed so many homes and businesses. Does that mean that I endorse arson?
One of my biggest critics at the time was Rabbi Hershel Billet, the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere. At the time he told me that I had to deal with the consequences of that terrible error no matter what they were.
It was somewhat shocking to me, as the suggestions or accusations, if you want to call them that, were completely off base. Rabbi Billet lives down the block from my daughter Malkie in Woodmere. Since he retired he spends most of his time in Israel. But there is still an “outdoor minyan” on the side lawn of his home every Friday night and on Shabbos for Minchah and for Ma’ariv. I davened there, in fact, last Shabbos, though he is away until after the chagim.
When he was there he used to say to me that he wanted me to know that his criticism was not a new thing and that he never liked the positions of the 5TJT. Most of our differences revolved around his opposition to President Trump and the 5TJT support of the past president.
Anyway, we met at a wedding this past winter and we made our peace. I tried to explain that, as he well knows, while there should always be reasonable parameters, a newspaper presents all kinds of positions on issues, and readers have the right and ability to agree or disagree. It does not necessarily have to be right or wrong or good or bad.
We now belong to some of the same WhatsApp groups and we share material with one another. I send him the online PDF of this newspaper every week. He sends me articles from other publications each week and I send him some things (he usually says that he’s already seen what I sent). I think we have rebuilt our relationship and respect the different ways we see some things, and that is the way it should be.
I’m running out of space here, but there are other articles I’d like to touch upon that grabbed inordinate attention. They include articles on the always-controversial issue of shidduchim and the movement to stop circulating photos of the men and women in the so-called parashah.
The matter of matchmaking is always an interesting topic in our community. But I thought that there was a kind of double standard at play here as the call was being made to stop sending photos around but to still send the photo to the shadchanim. Some agreed, others disagreed, and that’s a good thing.
One of the important things about reviewing matters of the past is that it can serve as a catalyst for growth in the future. I hope that in the year ahead this forum can be used to achieve precisely that. There are numerous challenges in the year ahead; one of the main ones is to make sure we can turn it into a good and sweet New Year.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.