Buttons comes to the ‘Post’
My problem was that I looked about 12. I waved my press card in their faces, but to no avail.
Sarah Honig. Photo: Courtesy
WHEN HOUSING minister Avraham Ofer committed suicide on the third day of 1977, I
was already a political reporter, with a good few years in the profession behind
me. Yet when I was sent out to cover his funeral and arrived at City Hall, where
the body lay in state, I encountered a difficulty which few of my colleagues
ever did. The cops wouldn’t let me near and chased me off saying, “this
is no place for children.”
My problem was that I looked about
12. I waved my press card in their faces, but to no avail. A few
minutes later, City Hall’s glass doors flew open and my then-editor Ari Rath
(who along with Ofer hailed from Kibbutz Hamadiya) peered out and called to the
officers: “It’s OK, this child is with me.” My embarrassment was now
For one who was for all too many years The Jerusalem Post’s
“little girl,” it’s doubly strange to find myself today the most veteran writer
on its editorial staff. Admittedly, I arrived at the paper a young student, only
looking for occasional freelance work. The fact that I stayed for so long goes
to conclusively corroborate that old Israeli adage that “there’s nothing so
permanent as something temporary.”
As a Dan Region resident, my aim was
to find employment in Tel Aviv, but I somehow had the presence of mind to first
approach the head office in Jerusalem.
There I met duty news editor
Charlie Weiss, who looked up briefly with his very blue eyes and upon hearing
that I was thoroughly bilingual, asked if I had time to cover the Jerusalem
Municipal Council session that was slated to begin in 15 minutes. Mayor Teddy
Kollek was supposed to settle some political score there.
peculiar. Charlie asked me no other question.
I was too green and too
eager to be wary, never mind to recognize that I was being … exploited – sort
of. Charlie was short of reporters and I serendipitously walked in off the
street at the last moment. He merely took advantage of an
From his vantage point I was better than nothing.
didn’t understand then that Charlie wasn’t even testing me. I didn’t know that
bilingual staffers were hard to come by and, when found, were kept on as
reporters for as long as feasible. Desk jobs could go to new immigrants whose
English was fine, but whose Hebrew was atrocious. They knew a lot less than
reporters, a fact which skewed the paper’s hierarchy and triggered conflicts
But being naïve, I went, heard Kollek, took notes, came back and
wrote my report. That inspired Charlie’s second and last-ever question to me:
“Why didn’t you tell the story chronologically?” I answered that I thought I
should start off with the most interesting tidbit to capture the reader’s
interest. He hired me then and there.
Charlie instructed me to go down to
the Tel Aviv office and introduce myself to the bureau chief, Macabee Dean. He
warned me not to pay heed to his off-color jokes because “Mac is all bark and no
bite and really the sweetest guy.”
Were it not for the absence of
fly-paper, I could swear that I had stumbled into a ramshackle establishment
deep in the Mississippi boondocks.
Dean sat in his undershirt, with his
feet on the desk, swaying to the rhythms of “Hang down your head Tom Dooley.” I
was greeted with an American-accented dirty joke and Dean’s promise to “make a
man of this little girl.” I was also forthwith nicknamed “Buttons” because of
the shape of my nose.
The Tel Aviv office was then located in the heart
of town – on the corner of Nahalat Binyamin and Yehuda Halevi streets, right
behind Allenby Road’s old central post office, an urban landmark in its
I found myself in a vibrant newsroom, unlike anything in existence
in this age of hi-tech gadgets which spare reporters the need to ever put in an
appearance, and which facilitate filing from anywhere.
our newsroom was crammed with rickety wooden desks in varying stages of
On each was perched a typewriter, each a relic of a different
era. My first one was a genuine antique – an American Underwood with see-through
glass sides. It was followed by a Hungarian wonder, whose keys featured
non-English instructions, sufficiently suggestive of four-letter English
expletives to elicit nonstop hilarity from Dean.
In time I would learn
that these exemplars of yesteryear’s technology actually put the Post right on
the cutting edge of the day. In Davar, for instance, they kept on scribbling by
pen, well beyond the advent of the personal computer.
The Post, in fact,
would – years later – become the first Israeli newspaper to resort to computer
innovations, and I’d become the first Israeli journalist to work from home
before the Internet. That was after I had given birth and was legally due leave
time, but my editors decided they couldn’t spare me – the law of the land
They had our Washington stringer smuggle through customs
a RadioShack Tandy which showed one line of text only at a time and had no hard
disk. It featured a flexible cup contraption that fitted over the mouthpiece of
the telephone (landline, of course) to transmit scant amounts of data.
was left with a thick instruction manual which I had to master on my own. In
time, word got round to the Journalists Association and I was roped into
teaching numerous other reporters, on many other news outlets, how to use the
rudimentary harbingers of today’s laptop.
But I’m getting way ahead of
myself. Back in the antediluvian day, long before the microchip and printed
circuits came to dominate our lives, what placed the Post in the technological
vanguard more than anything else was our in-house telex setup.
necessitated by the fact that we had to send our material to the news desk in
Jerusalem. This was another Jerusalem Post anomaly. In those days 80 percent of
our news copy was generated in Tel Aviv, but was edited and printed in
Jerusalem. This imposed on us – the only Jerusalem-based daily – much earlier
deadlines than those of all the other Israeli papers.
We had to get our final product down to Tel Aviv in time for distribution with
all the Tel Avivian Hebrews.
Transcribing texts by telex was the
exclusive preserve of Indian-born Aharon Khermoush, who ran his royal realm
high-handedly. He was one of those uncommon types who could forever remember any
phone number he ever came across and could spell flawlessly (while the
then-obligatory British spelling, usage and idioms bedeviled many of us). He had
a field day with each of our typos and announced them crowingly to the entire
“Can’t spell, can’t spell,” he’d roar with relish at Mac, who
could always be counted upon for a clever retort.
Next on the funny-bone
tickling scale was our late military correspondent Ze’ev (Wolfgang) Schul who
daily regaled us, in detail, with tales of exploits we never heard of (and never
quite wanted to hear). Ze’ev was the macho-man of the bunch and the one who
called me Meida’le (little girl in Yiddish) in addition to Buttons.
emerged that we lived in close proximity, which meant that he would drive me
home before I got my own license. Ze’ev, a Yekke transplanted in his youth from
Germany to the Galilee village of Migdal, was one of the most dominant and
effervescent voices in our newsroom. The repartee between him and Mac kept most
of us in stitches, but not Mark Segal.
Mark, my political guru, was a
pedantic writer, always searching for the perfect pun or turn of phrase. The
newsroom’s juvenile hijinks interfered with his concentration. “Can’t we have
some decorum around here?” he’d repeatedly exclaim in his British intonation.
Inevitably, this only made Mac and Ze’ev all the more boisterous.
seemed unwelcoming when I first walked in. “Oh, that’s just what we need,
a little girl,” he sneered. In time, though, he became a fixture in our home. He
was a frequent visitor, mostly unannounced. He came over and sat around
with my parents. He exchanged recipes with my mother, which was odd,
because she wasn’t much of a cook and couldn’t stand the kitchen.
matter, Mark was soon part of the household and the mentor to whom I’ll forever
remain grateful. However, he’s not the only one I owe so much
Sraya Shapiro was the doyen of the crew and the senior political
correspondent. He was an Israeli, educated at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya, a
former Hagana intelligence officer, a master-photographer, very erudite, an
incomparable font of historical information and – justifiably – a tad cynical.
He made his professional name in the defunct Haboker and kept warning me: “Don’t
show the Anglos in Jerusalem that you know more than them, or they’ll get you.
They hate the bloody natives.”
Sraya, jaded by the time I showed up, did
his darndest to avoid assignments. On my second day in the Post’s Tel Aviv
office he dumped on me the task of covering a speech by then-premier Levi
Eshkol. Sraya thereupon recommended to all and sundry that I should do
But it was hardly that obvious to others. In those
pre-politically correct times, the Post actually featured a “Woman’s Page.” The
assumption was that politics constituted a male domain. This was despite the
fact that editor Ted Lurie’s deputy was the remarkable Lea Ben-Dor, whom I
admired unreservedly and who would herself assume the Post’s editorship in
1974. But she was considered a singular case, apart from other females –
much like Golda Meir in Israeli politics.
The Woman’s Page was run by the
indomitable Helen Rossi in Jerusalem. Her Tel Aviv second-in-command was
Helga Dudman, as nonconformist a character as anyone is likely to meet – except
in her conviction that gender had earmarked me incontrovertibly for the Woman’s
Page. Despite my protests, Helga dispatched me to cover a fashion show organized
by Ruth Dayan. I couldn’t care less and my copy reflected it.
consumerism expert, Martha Meisels, worked with Helga and Helen, but understood
me wholeheartedly and backed my resolve not to be boxed in against my will.
Martha would spend untold hours researching the minutiae of a newfangled laundry
detergent or breakfast cereal. She became a formidable authority of the sort
Israel hasn’t known since her premature death in 1995.
There just never
was anyone else like the accomplished Radcliffe alumna whose “Marketing with
Martha” column remains legend.
In those early days she also had many news
beats that I took over before she went on maternity leave. But consumer affairs
remained her select specialty. No one was temperamentally suited to follow in
We quickly bonded, became fast friends and when, a couple
of months later, Martha gave birth to Tammy, I was the one who helped her take
the newborn to the clinic for regular checkups.
We were virtual family
for the next few decades. Martha was my closest friend, truly like a
sister. We had something else in common. We absolutely didn’t moonlight. I was
at first mystified by how my material – especially scoops on the incipient
struggle of Soviet Jewry – would make it to the wires before publication in the
Post. After a while, I figured it out.
Many of our reporters were in the
unofficial employ of one news agency or another, and leaked
But not only reporters. One evening I caught Khermoush, whom
I’d never remotely suspect, reciting in his distinctive Bombay inflection
directly from the tickertape to someone on the phone.
transpired, was the Agence France- Presse man in our newsroom. He wasn’t
taken aback by my discovery. “Buttons, you’re one of us now,” he proclaimed
patronizingly. “You may look like a little girl, but you’re no longer a
naïve little girl.”
Still, I was little girl enough to have contracted
the measles during my first year at the Post. Ari nearly blew a gasket when he
saw that my doctor’s note was from the politically wrong sick fund – Kupat Holim
“What?!” he screamed at me red in the face, “You are a Herutnik?
One of them? That’s unacceptable!”
He inquired in disbelief: “Maccabi isn’t good
enough for you?” Livid, Ari then categorically ordered me to “switch to the
Histadrut right now.” Little girl though I was, I stood my ground and
talked back, which launched a prolonged political standoff. But that’s a
whole other opera.