Characters in the corridor: Memories of an ‘old-timer’ at JPost

The names of the journalists who helped make the paper, and helped form me, are too numerous to mention here, but they have a place in my heart, as well as the archives.

 ‘INTERNATIONAL JERUSALEM POST’ editor Liat Collins rereads a 75th-anniversary edition interview with Meir Ronnen. In the background is hardworking social media manager Noemi Szarkacs, who made aliyah from Hungary. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘INTERNATIONAL JERUSALEM POST’ editor Liat Collins rereads a 75th-anniversary edition interview with Meir Ronnen. In the background is hardworking social media manager Noemi Szarkacs, who made aliyah from Hungary.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

I don’t remember the exact date I started working at The Jerusalem Post, sometime in November 1988, but I can’t forget the day I interviewed there. I arrived early to meet In Jerusalem editor Esther Hecht about a copy editing job. When I reached the large, old building on Jerusalem’s Yirmeyahu Street, with the brass nameplate proudly still calling it The Palestine Post, I met my first Post character. Ahuva manned the switchboard at the entrance. Always armed with her knitting needles, she also acted as a formidable guard. She quizzed me and directed me up to the second floor.

There I was greeted by the sound of dance music and the sight of rows of employees doing a workout. There is something intimidating about being interviewed by someone who just moments earlier was kicking and punching to Aretha Franklin spelling out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.”

I got the position, one that as editor David Landau stressed, was meant to be as a temporary replacement for three months, and only in the local paper. I didn’t mind. Just having a foot in the door made me happy, let alone being able to sing and dance with both feet in the hallowed hallway a couple of mornings a week.

There is nothing so permanent as the temporary, as they say – and 34 years later I’m still here to celebrate The Jerusalem Post’s 90th anniversary as a staff member.

I was blessed to start working in a golden age for print journalism. And I was blessed to work with some amazing people.

 THE BRASS nameplate proudly still calling the old Yirmeyahu Street premises ‘The Palestine Post.’  (credit: Jerusalem Post archives) THE BRASS nameplate proudly still calling the old Yirmeyahu Street premises ‘The Palestine Post.’ (credit: Jerusalem Post archives)

More daunting than an aerobic workout with my boss – and mentor – was meeting the names behind the bylines. I couldn’t believe that I could walk down the corridors and bump into much-admired writers such as Alex Berlyne, Sam Orbaum, Meir (Mike) Ronnen, and so many others.

They turned out to be extremely approachable. And each in their own way taught me unforgettable life lessons and tricks of the trade.​We worked in a low-tech era, ​when some journalists filed reports by phone and others mailed typewritten ​articles that were literally cut-and-paste. The pre-email computer system was primitive.​​

Without the distractions of mobile phones and the Internet, we seemed to have more time. While today my lunch usually consists of a homemade sandwich eaten with care to avoid getting crumbs in my keyboard, then we had the option of sitting in the staff canteen, close to the old-fashioned printing press. The food wasn’t much to write home about, but the company was excellent.

How did we manage without Google?

We had the old-timers who seemed to know everything – and were accomplished storytellers to boot. Alex Berlyne, who often came to the office in his volunteer police uniform, was the go-to person for anything obscure or humorous. Alec Israel knew about books and beyond. Scrabble player Sam Orbaum, who died way too young, taught me a thing or two – or three – about wordplay and was a whiz at headlines. Matt Nesvisky was another master wordsmith with a heart of gold. Moshe Kohn was the Jewish world expert, and Ernie Meyer could answer any question on the Holocaust.

Art director and caricaturist Ronnen was responsible for the name change from The Palestine Post to The Jerusalem Post in 1950. He was also the founding editor of The International Jerusalem Post, or The Jerusalem Post Overseas Weekly edition as it was initially known, which I now edit.

He once gave me lasting advice that I cherish. I sought him out one morning after having bought a painting at a charity art auction without any idea of its true value:

“There are two things you need to ask yourself,” he told me. “Could you afford it, and do you still like it this morning? If the answer to both questions is yes, nothing else is important.”

Other remarkable characters could also frequently be seen in the corridors: dance critic Dora Sowden with her distinctive large hats topping her diminutive figure; Dennis Silk, described by Yehuda Amichai as what a poet should look like; and caring culture vulture Helen Kaye. 

Several talented photographers also came and went before the days of digital photos, when physical prints had to be submitted. David Rubinger is probably the best known among them. His professional tip when I asked him: “It’s all a matter of perspective. You have to try to catch a different angle, a different way of looking at things.” It’s advice that can be applied to more than photography.

Restaurant reviewer and tourism writer Haim Shapiro, who invited Post people to his 80th birthday celebration a few years ago, also taught me an important lesson often overlooked in the world of talkbacks. Asked what he did if he ate somewhere and it was terrible, he told me he wouldn’t write about the restaurant but would give it a second chance. Anyone can have an off day. 

However, as any critic can attest, it’s much easier and more fun to write a witty, withering review than a fair one that doesn’t bore the reader.

Martha Meisels, the consumer columnist whose advice was invaluable in a pre-Google era, will forever in my mind be tied to trailblazing environmentalist Dvora Ben-Shaul. One of the proudest moments of my career was receiving the Life and Environment award together with Dvora. I still often wish I could consult with her when I need pet advice. In a column on how to give animals medicine, the zoologist stated: “Once when I was treating a bear with a sore paw...”

I have written elsewhere of how my grandfather did a painting of a postcard showing an archaeological dig in the Bar-Kochba caves, where both Martha and Dvora clearly appear, long before we became colleagues. The two continue to hang around together on my living room wall.

Other venerable veteran writers are Greer Fay Cashman, who remembers names and newsworthy incidents over decades, and Judy Siegel (or Jusie to veterans) is a fountain of information on health.  And I know I can always call Esther Hecht.

The names of the journalists who helped make the paper, and helped form me, are too numerous to mention here, but they have a place in my heart, as well as the archives.

Those of us who worked together on In Jerusalem formed a tight band of friends and colleagues. (And all mourn the loss of Aryeh Dean Cohen four years ago.)

We worked together through war and peace. In January 1991, when I was IJ acting editor, I asked Post editor-in-chief N. David Gross what we should do when the First Gulf War hostilities broke out: “What’s your question?” he mumbled into his long, gray beard. “You’re journalists, and the paper has to come out no matter what.”

But I should have known that. It was a lesson scorched into Post history. In February 1948, when a bomb ripped apart the premises then on Havatzelet Street, the next day’s paper appeared with the headline: “Palestine Post press and offices destroyed... explosion rocks Jerusalem.” 

Chief archivist Alexander Zvielli, who started working at the newspaper in December 1945 and continued until his death in May 2017, a remarkable 72 years later, was wounded in the blast. How much Post history and legacy was lost when he left us at the age of 96?

Nearly 10 years ago, the paper moved to new premises at 206 Jaffa Road. The physical archives with clippings has been replaced by the virtual one, managed by Elaine Moshe, another veteran. And recently, we all consolidated on the second floor, having put the photo archives in storage a couple of years before.

The new open-plan offices are more comfortable and aesthetic than their predecessors on Yirmeyahu Street. They are also quieter. In the age of WhatsApp and email, almost no phones ring with reporters calling in stories. I am the only one who sings out loud – but the young and enthusiastic Internet team needs to have at least one eccentric old lady around.

Today, there are no more corridors, and many of the characters of my early days at the Post have gone to a world without deadlines. Far from being ghosts that haunt me, they are constant inspirational guiding spirits. 