Ed Guthman leaves legacy of fighting injustice

When Ed Guthman died Aug. 30 at the age of 89, the Los Angeles Jewish community lost one of its most distinguished members.

He had been a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter. As press secretary to Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, he braved danger in the South when the federal government forced recalcitrant states to integrate. Before that, he’d faced danger in combat in Italy during World War II.

Ed was an editor at the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was a beloved journalism professor at USC. He helped create and then headed the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

I don’t believe Ed was religious. We never discussed it. Our shared religious background was hardly mentioned when, in 1972, he assigned me to do a story that was of major interest to the Jewish community.

At the time, Republicans were mounting a quiet but intense campaign to persuade Jews to vote for President Richard M. Nixon on the grounds that he was Israel’s best friend. I told Ed I had a connection who might help, Louis Boyar, a cousin who was a major philanthropist, political contributor, supporter of the Jewish community and friend of Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel.

Ed assigned me the story. I had lunch with Boyar at the Hillcrest Country Club and reported what I had learned. It wasn’t enough, so Ed sent me east, first to the office of Jake Arvey, the retired Chicago political boss and a prominent Jew, and finally to the Israeli Embassy in Washington. The last stop, plus some other interviews, finally gave me enough information to satisfy Ed, and I wrote the story.

Looking back on the incident, what was striking was how little our being Jewish figured into the pursuit of the story, even though it would be widely discussed in the community. My memory of the story is how he urged me on until I got to the bottom of it.

That’s not unusual. A newsroom is a most secular place. In all my years in newsrooms, I can recall discussing religion with only one person, my friend Tim Rutten, a devout, although cynical, Catholic.

Such secularism, by the way, is one reason for journalism’s spotty coverage of religion. The United States is a highly religious country, but this is not reflected on television news or in mainstream publications.

But whether or not he was religious, Ed was a righteous man — although never self-righteous — who approached his tasks with a commitment to social justice, honesty and concern for society’s underdogs. There was something biblical about him, like those prophets who couldn’t let evil pass by without doing or saying something about it.

When he was honored by the Los Angeles City Council for his public service, he said he was grateful to his father, a German Jewish immigrant, for imbuing in him an obligation to serve.

“He always taught us that we had to give something back to this great country and the freedom we enjoy and experience,” he said.

I became friends with Ed at the Times, where he was national editor from 1965 to 1977.

It was a big job. Ed was in charge of a growing network of bureaus around the country, as well as the Washington bureau. In addition, he was responsible for a national desk, which edited the large number of stories that came in each day.

Ed took the best of this work into the daily news meetings, where the managing editor, after hearing the pitches of each of the editors, decided what would go on Page 1. Ed argued fiercely for his stories and was sometimes too intense for a group who seemed to take pride in being calm, laid back and uninvolved.

It was a tumultuous period, and Ed was in the middle of it. The Watts Riot of 1965 ushered in the era, followed by student rebellions in Berkeley and across the country and then demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In the middle of it were the assassinations, first of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Ed’s friend, Robert Kennedy. That occurred here in Los Angeles, the night Kennedy won the 1968 California Democratic primary.

Then there was Watergate. Ed’s leadership in the Times coverage and his association with Kennedy earned him a place high on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

Ed’s office was one of several for editors at one end of the vast newsroom. He didn’t spend a lot of time in the office. When he was in there, he was on the phone with his correspondents around the country and in the Washington bureau.

But much of the time, he roamed through the newsroom, talking to reporters. He respected reporters and was curious about what they were working on and how they were going about it.

That’s how I became friendly with him. I covered politics, and Ed was intensely interested in what I was doing, from state elections to campaigns for City Council. He began arranging with my boss for me to do national stories for him.

In writing this sort of piece for a newspaper, a journalist looks for illuminating anecdotes that in three neat paragraphs can illustrate and explain the subject of a story.

Ed did not lend himself to anecdotes. He was forthright and plain in his speech. For a man of such accomplishment, he was extremely modest. In a business full of men and woman with huge egos, he didn’t boast of glory days of the past.

So I don’t have any great stories about Ed. What I took away from our friendship was a commitment to social justice and to fighting injustice. Long after he left the paper, I tried to carry on his tradition in my own work and, when I became an editor, in the work of my reporters. Many of them knew Ed and were inspired by him, as were his students at USC.

They are Ed’s legacy to journalism and his country.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Images, memories and sounds paint vision of my Israel

This is the second in a series of weekly columns celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary, leading up to Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

Israel is…

Where I was born. Where I ate my first Popsicle and used a proper toilet for the first time. Where some of my 18-year-old friends spend their nights in bunkers sleeping with their helmets on. Where security guards are the only jobs in surplus. Where deserts bloom and pioneer stories are sentimentalized. Where a thorny, sweet cactus is the symbol of the ideal Israeli. Where immigrating to Israel is called “ascending” and emigrating from Israel is called “descending.” Where my grandparents were not born, but where they were saved.

Where the year passes with the season of olives, of almonds, of dates. Where the transgressive pig or shrimp dish speaks defiantly from a Jerusalem menu. Where, despite substantial exception, secularism is the rule. Where wine is religiously sweet. Where “Arabic homes” is a positive real estate term with no sense of irony. Where there is endless material for dark humor. Where there are countless words for “to bother,” but no single one yet for “to pleasure.” Where laughter is the currency; jokes the religion. Where political parties multiply more quickly than do people. Where to become religious is described as “returning to an answer” and becoming secular “returning to a question.”

Where six citizens have won Nobel prizes in 50 years. Where the first one earned an Olympic gold in 2004 for sailing (an Israeli also won the bronze for judo). Where there is snow two hours north and hamsin (desert wind) two hours south. Where Moses never was allowed to walk, but whose streets we litter. Where the language in which Abraham spoke to Isaac before he was to sacrifice him has been resuscitated to include the words for “sweatshirt” and “schadenfreude” and “chemical warfare” and “press conference.” Where the muezzin chants, and the church bells sound and the shofars cry freely at the Wall. Where the shopkeepers bargain. Where the politicians bargain. Where there will one day be peace but never quiet.

Where I was born; where my insides refuse to abandon.

This piece is an excerpt from Alan Dershowitz’s book, “What Israel Means to Me” (Wiley, $15.95).

Natalie Portman is an actress who has starred in many films, including “Anywhere But Here,” “Where the Heart Is,” “Closer” and the “Star Wars” prequels. She made her Broadway debut playing the title role in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She was born in Jerusalem, speaks fluent Hebrew, and graduated from Harvard University.

Don Rickles on film for the very first time

Heroes and Villains

Brian Wilson penned the Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains” during a turbulent, paranoia-filled time in his life, according to his biographers. Wilson had people
whom he trusted in the business, and others whom he felt were out to get him.

We all instinctively identify and label the heroes and villains in our lives, and Judaism supports the need for iconic heroes.

In Hollywood’s early days, the traditional villain was the hunched-over, mustachioed scofflaw sporting a black cape, while the hero was the pumped-up, 6-foot-3 blond hunk with gleaming-white teeth. And while today’s Hollywood has been mixing things by portraying schlubs as heroes (think “Shrek”), the Talmud states that a Torah scholar must be impeccably dressed. Furthermore, God will only allow prophecy to rest on someone who is “wise, strong, wealthy and tall.” In order for God to be well represented to his people, the messenger has to look like a mensch.

Moses didn’t appreciate this idea. When God first dispatched him to speak to the Jewish people, Moses tried to get out of it. He felt that no mortal could aptly represent God, and so God should represent Himself.

God disagreed. He taught Moses that the gap between man and God was too great at the outset of Jewish history. The people at the time were unsophisticated slaves who instead needed a heroic Moses as their icon of salvation.

God won the argument.

In last week’s portion, when Moses first spoke to the Jews about how God had sent him (the good guy) to defeat Pharaoh (the bad guy), they were very receptive and they believed him. But in Parshat Vaera, after Moses again complains about having to be the messenger, God teaches him a lesson.

“Therefore,” God says, “say to the Jewish people, ‘I am Y-H-V-H'” (Exodus 6:6).

God was saying: Moses, this time tell the Jews that the omnipotent and unknowable God will be taking them out of Egypt, and that it’s no longer about you, the hero, defeating Pharaoh, the villain.
And the second time out the Jews did not accept Moses’ words. “They did not listen to Moses from shortness of breath” (Exodus 6:9). They lacked the depth to appreciate a direct and ethereal encounter with God, sans the very tangible heroes and villains.

Therefore, it’s a bit surprising when the Talmud states that in the future, the Jewish Messiah will be a “poor man, riding on a donkey,” just as he is described in the book of Zachariah (9:9).
If it was so important during the Exodus that there be iconic heroes and villains, why is it now OK for the Messiah to look like such a nebbish?

Apparently, the Talmud feels that by the time the Messiah is ready to appear, the world will no longer be suckered in by external appearances. We will have evolved to a more mature appreciation of greatness, and our saviors will not have to look like Errol Flynn.

The Talmud also records a dialogue between the sage Shmuel and a powerful Persian ruler. The Persian asked Shmuel why the Jewish Messiah would be riding on a donkey.

“Allow me to provide him with a well-groomed Persian horse!” he mocked.

Shmuel responded, “Do you have a horse of a hundred colors?”

Shmuel says this because according to the Persian ruler’s superficial values, there is no horse in the world that would befit our leading man, the Messiah. So Shmuel’s doesn’t need the ruler’s horse or any other horse because when the Messiah comes we’ll be able to recognize him for what he is even without the clich├ęd symbols of heroism.

As human beings, we need icons to help us relate to God and the forces of good and evil. This, according to Moses Nachmanides, was why the Jews made the golden calf. Once they thought that their leader Moses was dead, they immediately had a need for a new intermediary icon to lead them through the desert.

Without black-and-white icons, life sometimes becomes too confusing and we lose our way. But, ultimately, we are meant to rise above the external images. We are to eventually become sophisticated enough to be able to recognize goodness and salvation even from the not-so-obvious sources.

So don’t be surprised when you meet the Messiah and discover “a poor man, riding on a donkey.” Or, maybe he’ll be short, bald and beardless, like Natan Sharansky. Who knows? I just hope I’m wise enough to recognize him when the time comes.

Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Interrupting? No Problem

The next time someone accuses you of interrupting, you might want to explain that you are not being rude: You’re actually engaging in high-involvement cooperative overlapping.

Cooperative overlapping — talking as another person continues to speak — is typical of Jewish conversational style, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, and can be a way of showing interest and appreciation.

Tannen, 54, is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of many scholarly and popular works, including “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” and “That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships.”

Jewish conversational style is not a precise term. Not all Jews exhibit its characteristic features, and not all people who exhibit them are Jewish, according to Tannen. But the pattern of conversation found among most Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, differs in significant ways from that of most Americans of non-Jewish background from the South, Midwest and West.

In a recent interview, Tannen discussed her analysis of Jewish-style conversation. Along with cooperative overlap, Jewish-style pacing characteristics, she believes, include a “fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn-taking among speakers.” In a conversation among Jews, participants find the simultaneous talk and quick turn-taking unremarkable; they interpret silences and pauses as evidence of lack of rapport and/or interest.

But those not accustomed to this style, according to Tannen, may see these active listening behaviors as rudeness, verbal hogging and lack of interest in the speaker. The very characteristics that promote good conversation among the in-group can create a style disconnect among mixed groups.

Beyond that, people make judgments about the personalities of individuals based on conversational style. According to Tannen, negative stereotypes of pushy New York Jews may owe more to clashing linguistic patterns than to character flaws.

Different conversational styles of couples, where one person is Jewish and the other is not, may contribute to the initial attraction, Tannen said. Someone quieter may seem mysterious and wise, while somebody more talkative can seem articulate and smart. But over time, the differences in style, particularly in close relationships, can be difficult. “You think you had good intentions, and they think you had bad ones,” she said.

Other features of Jewish conversational style include a preference for personal topics, abrupt shifts of subject, unhesitating introduction of new ideas and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.

Jews also tend to tell more stories, often in rounds; dramatize their points instead of putting them into words; and focus on the emotional content.

People whose regional and ethnic backgrounds promote a different way of conversing may not “get the point” of these rounds of story-sharing with no real plot, she said. They also may find the expectation of personal revelation unnervingly intrusive.

Tannen believes the sound of Jewish-style talk — pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality and accent — can signal concern and empathy as well as reinforcing a shared ethnic background among Jews. Or they may put off people more used to a restrained, less expressive way of speaking.

Deborah N. Cymrot is community editor for The Washington Jewish Week