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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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,”
“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
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Teddy Kollek,” he
Prof. Finkelstein, who – it turned out – had worked at the
’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
There I joined my only brother, who had come on aliya a few
months earlier after getting his own MA in political science from
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.
one back then dreamed that print journalism would eventually lose its
prominence, but exposure around the world to our online stories
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
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.”
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
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
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.”