Passing the (journalistic) baton

Some things are learned,some things inherited. Perhaps reporting and a knack for writing are both?

The writer at her Bat Mitzva with her mom, 'Defense News' reporter Barbara Opall-Rome (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer at her Bat Mitzva with her mom, 'Defense News' reporter Barbara Opall-Rome
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the deputy news editor of The Jerusalem Post, and also the daughter of a Post alumna, there is nothing quite as terrifying as arriving home late at night only to find pages of Haaretz sprawled across your bed. It could only mean one of two things: Either she thinks I caught a story that the competition missed, or alternatively, I dropped the ball on an important news item.
The dynamic in my mother’s house in Herzliya has altered ever since I joined the Post, a newspaper she wrote for from 1982 to 1986. I have transcended the role of a daughter and become something more akin to a sounding board, confidante and – in the best moments – a source to vent her frustrations with her sources and editors.
It’s been a wild ride since I joined the Post over a year ago. In honor of International Women’s Day, then, I thought it would be fitting to highlight what happens when a baton of sorts is passed from one generation to the next.
In this interview, I asked my mom questions that I probably should have asked years ago. But it’s never too late. We sat down with a bottle of wine and discussed the tricks of the trade, her career as Washington bureau chief for Defense News and the juggling act inherent in being a working mom in such a fast-paced, male-dominated field.
From Uniontown to Tel Aviv
Statistically, it’s unlikely that many people hailing from Uniontown, Pennsylvania – a small town an hour south of Pittsburgh, with a population of roughly 10,000 – end up covering Southeast Asian military affairs out of Washington. Fewer still subsequently settle in Tel Aviv and report on IDF strategies and the Israeli arms industry. In this way (and many others) my mother, Barbara Opall- Rome, has proven to be an anomaly.
So what compels a stereotypical small-town girl to flee her suburban town and enter the world of journalism?
“One word: Watergate,” my mother answered. “The power, the drama, the possibilities. [Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein] were my heroes.
“As an impressionable teenager in high school, it rocked my world.”
While the Jewish population in my mom’s hometown wasn’t much to speak of, my grandmother instilled Zionist commitment and love of Israel. My mother and her siblings all visited Israel on a B’nai Brith trip when they were 16. It was that trip that left an indelible impression on my mother, and convinced her to ultimately make a home in the Jewish state.
Coming to Israel
With a new baby, a daunting new job as a police and justice reporter and little money meant a farfrom- perfect life in the Land of Milk And Honey. My mother was 21 when she met my Israeli father as a student in Washington’s American University. They married after a short courtship and came to Israel in 1982. As she began her job search in earnest, she found that there weren’t many options for Anglos with limited Hebrew.
“Where does an American girl who doesn’t know much Hebrew and aspires to journalism go to find a job? The Jerusalem Post!” My mother exclaimed when I asked how she came to join the paper’s ranks. Despite having very little reporting experience, she began as a proofreader on the copy desk.
“[Former editor-in-chief] Ari [Rath] to this day teases me that I had no portfolio when I came to interview,” she mused.
Not satisfied with being a proofreader, my mother relentlessly pushed for a meatier role, becoming the paper’s first female police and justice reporter. Securing that job, though, required my mother and her predecessor, the late Robert Rosenberg, to engage in some mild conspiring against my father. “[Rosenberg] actually had to come to [the] Gilo [neighborhood] to ask your father’s permission for me to become the police reporter for The Jerusalem Post,” she explained.
In perhaps a telling sign of the times, my mother said to Rosenberg, “He did that because I told him, ‘If my husband approves, I’m totally into it.’”
After my father interrogated Rosenberg about what such a position entailed, Rosenberg “lied through his teeth and said, ‘No problem! It’s a regular, routine job.’”
It quickly became apparent that there was nothing routine about a job that required being on-call throughout the night, covering murders and other tragic events while pregnant with me.
For the most part, she managed to separate the harsh demands of her personal life from her professional one. However, there was one grisly event that shook my mother to the core and compelled her to switch career tracks.
A year into her tenure as the police reporter, she received a call in the middle of a Friday night alerting her to a breaking news story in Ein Kerem. When she arrived on the scene, she witnessed the carnage of a 15-year old boy who had shot his parents and two siblings while they were asleep in their beds, with his father’s IDF-issue automatic rifle.
“That scene is permanently etched in my memory,” she recalled. “I remember the Shabbat candles still lit, the smell of cholent on the hot plate that filled that home in that pastoral, very peaceful neighborhood of Ein Kerem.
“And then I came home and I saw you sleeping so peacefully in your crib, and I just broke down. I was uncontrollably sobbing and so grateful that you were safe and that all was well in my own personal world after such a horrific night.”
After that watershed moment, she realized that it’s easier to cover matters of war instead of what is going on in your own backyard. “You’re more immune to it when it’s more academic and abstract, when it’s on the policy level.”
A woman in a man’s world
We talk about my mom’s journey in joining Defense News, dealing with being the odd (wo)man out and the other struggles of life as a single mom.
Her life drastically changed in her late 20s, when she moved back to DC and divorced my father.
Her role as a reporter covering the latest East Asian military deals had her traveling often. When she wasn’t on the road, a 12-hour workday was the norm.
When I broached the famous and controversial question on achieving work/life balance, my mother hesitated to answer. Largely, I suspect, because the person most impacted by her lack of “balance” was me.
“You have to juggle family and career. You’ll never be 100 percent, in the workplace and at home,” my mom answered carefully. “I still have that image of you waiting under the canopy of the Jewish community center at 7 p.m. after being stuck in Washington Beltway traffic. I still haven’t recovered from the guilt.”
The job also required her to confidently stride through the halls of the Pentagon interviewing senior officials and knocking back the occasional single malt with Chinese generals.
While most women would lament being a female in such a male-dominated sphere, my mom is generally not one to make excuses and tries to find ways to make something that could be perceived as a handicap work to her advantage.
“Sometimes, I let it work to my advantage,” she admitted. When a busy general had a stack of calls to return, she said, “sometimes I got access because he was a guy and I was a young, attractive girl and he called me back. It happens.”
She is just as quick to put a man in his place if she thinks he’s overstepped a boundary or behaved inappropriately, “I had a Pentagon source who called me ‘babycakes.’ He did it once; I let it slide. The second time, I disabused him of any notion of using that term toward me or in my presence. You can firmly and forcefully and definitively – even an older man if you’re in your 20s – put someone in his place,” she affirmed.
During this conversation, it became apparent that my mother and I have a fundamental difference about where women stand in terms of the glass ceiling and achieving equality. In her mind, the battle has been won and it’s up to each individual woman to blaze her own trail and empower herself. I, however, feel that as long as a gap remains between male and female salaries and women continue to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of government and the business world, there is still much to be done.
But there is one thing we can agree on: As long as we continue to support and foster independent and driven women, the sky is the limit.