Healthy Journalism

'The Jerusalem Post’s Health and Science Editor reflects on her nearly 40 years as a reporter – her first-ever paying job.

By
December 6, 2012 15:48
JUDY SIEGEL ITZKOVICH

JUDY SIEGEL ITZKOVICH 521. (photo credit: Sarah Levin)

A MINOR incident involving rock-throwing by Catholic elementary schoolchildren at Jewish children from a Talmud Torah across the street in Brooklyn, New York, was responsible for launching my career as a journalist at The Jerusalem Post nearly 40 years ago.

It seems hard to believe, but I probably wouldn’t be an Israeli journalist writing her 27,500th (and still counting) article for the paper if it hadn’t been for that upsetting event.

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Studying for my bachelor’s degree in political science at Brooklyn College – having given up biology because I just couldn’t get myself to pith frogs or gas mice in the lab – I took a senior-year seminar in urban government, taught by Prof. Philip Finkelstein.

With just a dozen students in class, he asked us to spend the year “solving a problem in New York City.” Unnerved when my peers chose to “make New York cleaner” or “make the city safer” for its eight million residents, I aimed much lower.

It was a time of much intercommunity conflict among ethnic groups, particularly between blacks and Jews.

After reading in a local newspaper about the conflict between the two schools, located not far from my family home in Flatbush, I went to the stern nuns in black habits and made them an offer.

“I would like to come once a week through the whole year to teach your hundreds of pupils in grades 1 to 8 about Judaism, Jewish history and Israel,” I said.

Hearing I was a rabbi’s daughter, the nuns were very reluctant, but when I pointed out that the school would probably receive more bad publicity if the tension continued, they gave in.

Nervously starting with the first graders, I brought my father’s shofar, halla, matza, hanukkiot, a small Torah scroll, film strips of Israeli landscapes, and other items to illustrate my talks, each according to the children’s level of understanding.

Despite the physical closeness, the insular Catholic children were so ignorant of Judaism that they looked for horns on my head, like those of Moses in Michelangelo’s marble sculpture.

On the last day of the school year I was asked to come to the auditorium and sit on the dais with all the nuns.

Were they going to shoot me? Baptize me? The whole school began to sing in Hebrew: “Torah tziva lanu Moshe” (the Torah was commanded to us by Moses).

I was moved to tears. “How did you manage to learn the words to that song?” I asked.

The nuns replied: “From our friends at the Talmud Torah....”

No one else had succeeded in their assignment. Prof. Finkelstein – then-deputy city administrator of New York City – gave me the class’s only A+ and sent a copy of my report to then-mayor John Lindsay.

To my great surprise, I received a phone call from City Hall inviting me to meet the aristocratic, liberal Republican mayor. Just turned 21 and shaking in my shoes, I entered his office and was duly impressed.

“What do you want to do with your life after you graduate?” the mayor asked me.

“I plan to do my master’s degree in urban government at Columbia University and then go immediately to live in Israel, in Jerusalem,” I said.

“My father was born there – as were the five generations before him – in Safed in the North, and taken to the US as a small child because of the starvation that killed one of his siblings. Israel is the only place for me,” I told him, not yet aware that I was an ardent Zionist.

“I have a friend in Jerusalem,” said Lindsay. “I will send you a letter of recommendation to him. He could give you a job in urban government, especially after you receive your MA.”

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Teddy Kollek,” he replied.

Prof. Finkelstein, who – it turned out – had worked at the Post’s copy desk in 1953, volunteered to send his own letter of recommendation to Ted Lurie, the paper’s editor-in-chief.

As I admired CBS’s Walter Cronkite, read The New York Times every day and had wanted to be a journalist from the age of 12, I gave priority to the letter to the Post over the one to the legendary mayor of Jerusalem – whose funeral I was sadly to cover, many years later at Mount Herzl – and flew to Israel a few days after getting my degree.

There I joined my only brother, who had come on aliya a few months earlier after getting his own MA in political science from Columbia.

SIX WEEKS after taking up residence in the Beit Giora immigrant hostel in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, I thought I was ready to apply for a job at the Post.

“I would like a job as a reporter,” I told the managing editor’s secretary, from my hostel’s public phone.

“There are no jobs here!” she said, abruptly, and hung up.

In tears, I called again and told her: “Look, I have letters of recommendation from the mayor of New York and from a former Post staff member. I have come all the way from New York. I have got to see the editor!” “OK,” she sighed, “but you’ll only hear from him that there are no jobs,” and she made an appointment for me with Ari Rath, the Post’s managing editor.

I arrived an hour early and sat down on the wooden park bench near the building, in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood. I remember praying silently.

But when I got up the nerve to go in, the secretary told me that “Mr. Rath been called away at the last minute by Golda Meir, the prime minister.” Another appointment was set up.

Once again I found myself on the bench, getting up the nerve to enter the building.

The managing editor took one look at me and asked: “Have you even written for a newspaper before?” “No,” I said naively, “but I have wanted to be a journalist since I was 12!” Rath studied my very short curriculum vitae. “A rabbi’s daughter, huh!” He tested me and found that my Hebrew was relatively fluent, from my years at Yeshiva University High School for Girls, although old-fashioned (I said aviron for “jet plane” instead of matos), and I barely knew who Moshe Dayan was.

Rath sent me upstairs to the Post’s tough “women’s editor,” Helen Rossi.

“So you want to be a journalist, eh! Write something!” I stifled a “What should I write?” after realizing the question would not be a sign of an enterprising writer.

A few days later, I wrote a story about my experience with the Catholic school. It appeared in the paper on April 15, 1973 – not a word was changed.

I had become a freelancer, and I spent most of my time speed-reading newspaper articles in the archives.

Gradually, the news editor assigned me one article after another. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, eight months after my arrival, I was asked to interview new immigrants from the West and from Russia who were witnessing their first armed conflict.

Since the home-front authorities didn’t know whether the capital would be bombed – as in the Six Day War – vehicle headlights had to be painted over in blue, and due to the nightly blackout, no one was allowed to use electric bulbs. I crawled from one tiny room to another, candle, pen and paper in hand, and did my interviews. That article too appeared in the Post.

After a year of this, Rath – who later became co-editorin- chief with Erwin Frenkel, following Lurie’s sudden death in the Far East, and a short tenure by Lea Ben-Dor – told me he was giving me tenure. (He is now a vigorous octogenarian, and we are still in touch. I owe him so much.) It was my first-ever paying job.

IN THE dingy former Tnuva chicken warehouse in Romema, where the newspaper has resided for 40 years (feathers occasionally popped out of the walls for a year or two after the move from the city center), the technology was crude.

Printers produced the paper with Linotype machines, the lead melted and cooled into lines held together by wooden frames. The men in the press had to drink milk to bind with the lead they inhaled to prevent metal poisoning. We all had manual typewriters and reams of paper, and – as a perfectionist – I typed and retyped my stories without using white-out, so that they should come out perfect.

Then, when the amazing invention of electric typewriters arrived in the newsroom, I was given the first one, because I had used one at college. My colleagues marveled over the machine.

In those days, young men on motorcycles rushed typed articles to the military censor for approval before sensitive stories could be published.

Reporters had to write stories from their desks; for a late-breaking story, someone at the copy desk – populated almost wholly by middle-aged men who had decades of reporting, or editing, behind them – might take dictation over the phone. But they were often too busy, and I had to return to the newsroom after a day’s work to type my story.

Nobody dreamed about computers, email or Internet. English was looked down upon as “foreign” by most Israelis, and writing for an English-language paper was considered “quaint,” but not at the center of media power.

I was often told: “But we meant the press release for the Israeli press, not for you.”

As I was modern Orthodox at a time when there were few observant Jews – or even women – on the reporting staff, I was assigned to cover the “religious beat,” the Jewish Agency, the Absorption Ministry, the Jewish world and the president of Israel.

I encountered the two chief rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who sat in separate offices on the same floor in Heichal Shlomo and didn’t speak to each other. During one painful week after the Yom Kippur War, when the names of fallen soldiers were gradually disclosed in the media, I had to write several articles about the two of them arguing about whether the grass growing in the Western Wall should be pulled out from among the ancient stones or left alone.

There was almost no religious-affairs coverage by the secular press, and Yosef, who was then ignored by almost everybody despite his Torah scholarship, invited me from time to time to discuss issues. Who would have dreamed that decades later he would become the spiritual leader of the Shas party and as a nonagenarian be consulted by prime ministers on war and peace? Once I was invited by Agudat Yisrael of the US to the Knessia Hagdola convention in Jerusalem’s Binyenei Ha’uma, but the envelope was addressed to “Mr. Judy Siegel.”

When I asked the editor if I should cover the event even though it was surely for men only, he said: “Tell them that if they want coverage they’ll get it only if you are allowed to sit with all the other reporters.”

The organizers agreed. I sat at the press table at the front of the 3,000-seat auditorium, all eyes on me, the only woman there.

I had my share of scoops during this part of my career, but helping forge change and assisting people were my greatest satisfaction.

When many hundreds of poor residents of Hantke Street in Kiryat Hayovel received huge bills from the municipality to help cover renovation costs, I spent a week going to the city archives and discovered it was legally a “through-road” to Hadassah University Medical Center. Thus the residents were exempt from payment. They cheered and said the street should be named for me...

The struggle for Soviet Jewry, mass immigration from the former Soviet Union and renewed aliya from the West in the 1970s and 1980s provided much exciting news, including the arrival of Natan Sharansky – then Anatoly Shcharansky – after his wife Avital’s long struggle for his release.

At her first press conference at Beit Agron, in which her eyes glistened with tears, reporters unfamiliar with the story annoyingly asked each other: “Who is this woman and what does she want from us?” The news that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was going to make a historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 so energized the Post that the editors decided to produce its first-ever Saturday night paper that would hit the news stands immediately. I was sent to lie on the grass outside the King David Hotel and report on Sadat’s entrance.

Covering Beit Hanassi, I began by reporting on president Zalman Shazar’s funeral through the presidency of the brilliant, but bashful, scientist Prof. Ephraim Katzir; the fiveyear presidency of the impressive, down-to-earth Yitzhak Navon followed; and then the first term of Chaim Herzog.

It was Navon’s presidency that was the most newsworthy and exciting: I flew with his entourage to Egypt to cover the first visit by an Israeli president.

Navon’s literary Arabic enchanted Sadat, who warmly received the Israeli delegation in his villa in the simple village where he was born. He introduced me to the Egyptian president, who shook my hand. Sadat’s 1981 murder by Muslim extremists who disapproved of his mission of peace to Israel was a shocker.

Kings, presidents, princes and princesses, lords, knights, ambassadors and common people passed through the President’s Residence, and I met most of them. The fifth president of Israel was the perfect host.

Navon made an impression on me for another reason closer to home: At his initiative, seeing I was “always working,” he had me introduced to the man who became my husband, vocational psychologist Nahum Itzkovich.

Navon and his wife, Ofira, even came to our wedding at the old Holyland Hotel, a month after the start of the first Lebanon war, and he recited one of the blessings. We remained in touch until Nahum’s premature death from illness last year – 30 years after Navon made our marriage possible.

IN THE spring of 1986, I was pregnant with my second child, a daughter, when the managing editor informed me that “all the news beats will be changed. We don’t want anybody to get stale. What do you want to cover?” Although I was enamored of my own fields of expertise, I immediately thought of health and science, because of my background in biology. Although this area had until then been covered mostly by foreign wire stories, and I would have to start from scratch with no one even to give me a list of sources, he agreed.

It was then that I acquired my passion in the battle against smoking – even though no one in my immediate family had ever put a cigarette into their mouth. Colleagues in the newsroom were permitted to smoke whenever they wished, and there were no restrictions even in the Knesset, though MKs had passed the country’s first rudimentary tobacco-control legislation a few years earlier.

A month before giving birth, I went to cover a very important Knesset committee session that was packed with people. The only seat I found was directly behind a chain-smoking MK who later became a powerful minister and party leader.

When, after an hour of exposure to the malodorous poison, I politely asked the MK if he could put his cigarette out, as I was feeling sick.

“No!” he said in indignation over his “right to smoke.”

An hour later, close to vomiting, I again requested that he put it out. Furious, he rose and asked the committee chairman to eject me. Two Knesset guards removed me forcibly, inducing the Kol Yisrael radio reporter who witnessed the incident to broadcast that "The Jerusalem Post’s very-pregnant health reporter was ordered out of a committee meeting because she asked MK –– to stub out his cigarette.”

That MK has had heart attacks and other illness that have nearly killed him, and it took him over 20 years to apologize for the degrading incident.

An hour after I had given birth, a new Post journalist – who had worked in the Foreign Ministry and is now a journalist for a leading Hebrew daily – made an emergency call to the Hadassah-Ein Kerem delivery room.

“I am your replacement for three months,” he said. “Please tell me how to cover health and science!” Barely knowing how to go about it myself, I hung up on him.

Back from my second maternity leave (several years later, my third child was born during the first Gulf War, and thanks to Saddam Hussein, I gave birth in a gas mask), I invested all my energy into covering medicine and science. I read – and still read – piles of medical and science journals; interviewed hospital administrators and department heads and almost lived in libraries.

THE ADVENT of the age of PCs, email and the Internet was a revolution, allowing journalists to gather and check facts instantly. Post archives expert Nina Keren- David worked hard to develop Israel’s first online newspaper, and www.jpost.com was born.

No one back then dreamed that print journalism would eventually lose its prominence, but exposure around the world to our online stories skyrocketed.

Writing about health and science – with their constant changes, discoveries, government conflicts and labor unrest – is fascinating. With thousands of interviews under my belt and daily consumption of print and online medical and scientific journals as if they were vitamins, I’m fortunate to be able to interview Nobel Prize winners or specialists in astrophysics, human embryonic stem cells, nanotechnology or any other scientific subject and understand what they’re saying. I don’t recall a single day of boredom, as my fields are always fast moving and fascinating. I can dream up 100 questions about any subject even without preparation or consulting the Internet to explain terminology, while translating simultaneously from Hebrew and typing the answers on my laptop. But ask me to stanch a bloody nose or watch live heart-valve surgery, and I will try to be elsewhere....

But having watched 16 health ministers in action, I am saddened by the low quality and high ambition of many of them; some have even ended up in prison or been threatened with incarceration. I believe only highly motivated, objective medical professionals – rather than politicians – should be given the health portfolio and oversee the ministry, which deals daily with life-and-death matters. While it is served by a number of dedicated, selfless and very hard-working professionals, it nevertheless has some staffers doing little more than waiting for their pensions – lacking initiative, creativity, drive and devotion. The fact that the ministry suffers from a severe conflict of interest from owning government hospitals and also being responsible for supervising them is a chronic scandal.

Ministry officials, therefore, can devote little time to long-term planning, disease prevention and health promotion, and they spend most of their effort putting out “fires.”

The Knesset too – where I remember giants like Yigal Allon meandering through the corridors – is populated by many mediocre, egotistical, hypocritical and apathetic characters who believe more in themselves than anything else and become committee chairmen not long after they become freshmen MKs.

The digital revolution has made journalists’ work much easier, but also enables anybody on Facebook or Twitter to claim to be an expert. Don’t believe everything you read online. A growing number of young people in PR – not only representing companies, but even hospitals and community health services – too often exaggerate, falsely claiming “breakthroughs” and “the world’s first...” to attract donors and patients. I have to check everything that I’m not certain is factual. And with the abolition of most limitations on self-publicity, it seems as almost every doctor and dentist has his own paid spokesman to get more “business.”

Nevertheless, legitimate breakthroughs and brickby- brick advances by devoted scientists and physicians in combating disease and extending and improving life are breathtaking to witness. For me, being a health and science editor is a privilege and a priceless opportunity to educate the public on how to live better and longer, inform them about new developments and trends; help them appreciate science; serve as a “bully pulpit” to goad the health establishment into making changes; and take action when the ordinary citizen has been treated unfairly. For example, one of my Health Page articles after the Carmel Forest conflagration succeeded in persuading the Health Ministry’s director-general to allocate millions of shekels to establish dedicated burns units in several hospitals.

I constantly try to educate my readers about healthful lifestyles and practice what I preach by eating right, exercising daily on my elliptical machine at home, staying as far away as possible from tobacco smoke and maintaining an optimistic outlook. I could probably claim an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for (thank God) my never having taken a single sick day since first entering the Post’s newsroom.

Israelis surveyed on the prestige of professions no longer put “journalist” near the top of the list; we are only a little higher up than MKs, who are close to the bottom. This is due not only to shrinking salaries and the collapse of news media around the world, but also because people like to “kill the messenger” of bad news. But I will never cease to feel the excitement that comes from writing an article one day and seeing it “miraculously” in print the next morning, when the paper is delivered to my doorstep.

Yet, despite the pockmarks on the face of journalism today, I firmly believe in what the great US statesman Thomas Jefferson said in 1787: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”


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