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How Jewish Journalism Has Changed After October 7

I wonder how, as a Jewish American writer, I can possibly return to capturing the kinds of human interest stories, general musings and personality profiles that have nothing to do with Israel, antisemitism and other urgent issues. 
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January 31, 2024
John Lamb/Getty Images; Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Each year, the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) invites writers to submit their best work to the annual Simon Rockower Awards, which recognize excellence in Jewish journalism. And each year, I pore over 12 months-worth of weekly columns and other stories I have written in search of anything that may be worthy of submitting on behalf of the Jewish Journal. 

Last week, I reviewed everything I have written for this paper since January 2023 and, rather than feeling accomplished, I felt what can only be described as a sense of remorse. 

My last 16 columns have been devoted to Israel, antisemitism or Iran. But still, there were plenty of other columns, on full display on my Journal author page: Every single column, cover story, “Dear Tabby” and community story I had written before Oct. 7. I had devoted tens of thousands of words to topics ranging from The Hollywood Bowl and Barbie dolls, the end of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the importance of experiencing a lousy, menial summer job as a teen. 

While it’s true that I had also written more serious columns and cover stories, I still felt a tinge of remorse in being reminded of everything I had written pre-Oct. 7. When I saw that my last column before the Simchat Torah massacre, published on Oct. 4, was titled “Machines, Machines, Everywhere” and offered a list of grievances against automated machines at supermarkets, I felt downright chagrin. 

How could I have devoted a column to such a seemingly trivial issue only three days before the worst Jewish massacre since the Holocaust? Yes, there was no way I could have known about the horror that was about to be unleashed against my people. But I still can’t come to terms with the fact that my last column before Oct. 7 complained about Amazon return kiosks at Whole Foods.  

I began to wonder how, as a Jewish American writer, I can possibly return to capturing the kinds of human interest stories, general musings and personality profiles that have nothing to do with Israel, antisemitism and other urgent issues. 

I believe that Jewish writers and reporters worldwide are experiencing a sense of discombobulation (not to mention chronic heartbreak) since Oct. 7. From Jewish newspapers in California to Georgia to New York and beyond, there is understandably very little coverage of matters that are not related to Israel and antisemitism today. In the words of one colleague who is a freelance American Jewish writer, and who asked to remain anonymous, “How can I write about anything else right now? It would be like writing about the opening of a new bakery during the Holocaust.”

My colleague’s words may sound harsh, but Jewish journalism in the Diaspora is currently facing a strange dilemma: On the one hand, writing about people and issues that have nothing to do with the massacre, the rape, the hostages and the current war may run the risk of appearing tone-deaf, to say nothing of a sense of turning our backs on Israel, whether perceived or real. 

On the other hand, what about all of the stories — the wonderful, diverse stories — about Jewish communities and endeavors worldwide, that are not related to Israel or the war, but that also deserve to be told? Fortunately, Jewish writers today know that Oct. 7 can be weaved into many, but not all of the stories we cover. Still, I know I can’t return to seemingly frivolous subjects for a while. 

I have a long list of story ideas I’m longing to cover that have nothing to do with Israel, but when will I return to them? I realize that contemplating this question is a privilege; it means that as a Jewish writer living in the United States, I have enough physical and even emotional distance to feel confused and guilty over how I currently choose to write about Israel. Israeli writers and reporters don’t enjoy this privilege; they exist at Ground Zero, whether or not they’re reporting from the battlefield. For them, there is no respite; only a perpetual survival mode of emotions. Just ask Sarah Tuttle-Singer and Etgar Lefkovits.

“We’re in a constant state of mourning, anxiety and exhaustion,” Tuttle-Singer told me in a phone interview from Jerusalem. A blogger for the Times of Israel (TOI) and author of the 2018 book, “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem,” Tuttle-Singer, who was born in LA and made aliyah, wishes that more Americans understood the personal nature of Oct. 7 and the ongoing war for all Israelis. 

“Every single person in Israel has a connection with a hostage or with someone who was murdered on Oct. 7, or a soldier killed in Gaza,” she said. “There’s no six degrees of separation here. We look at photos of soldiers and read the names of victims with our hearts in our throats. The connections here are so close and intense that every name released is a punch in the gut. Every face seems familiar.” Tuttle-Singer stressed that Israeli Jews are also being deeply affected by the images of Palestinian women and children in Gaza, “but are also still processing the staggering grief of Oct. 7.” 

How has the war affected her as a writer? “I’m not a reporter; I’m a storyteller,” she told me. “I’m finding it more necessary than ever to find the human stories. More than ever, the stories I want to share are about the beauty and complexity and diversity here, especially in Jerusalem.” 

That probably explains why Tuttle-Singer’s most recent blog was titled, “I’m a Jew: I’ll hold my head up high and my middle finger up higher if I need to.” A self-proclaimed member of the Israeli Left, she admitted that Oct. 7 was “a huge blow.” “The bridges we wanted to build have now been decimated, so now, we look inward to Israeli society itself.” And that includes strengthening ties between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. “The only thing I could do right now is to turn inward and to strengthen our own tent,” said Tuttle-Singer. 

“Covering the war in Gaza from the onset of the Oct. 7 massacre, many people have asked if it was not frightening and horrifying visiting the hard-hit kibbutzim in the days and weeks after the attack, with missiles raining down on southern Israel,” Lefkovits, a Jerusalem correspondent with JNS (Jewish News Syndicate) told me via email. “Actually, every time I was there — even with missiles coming in en masse during the first weeks of the war — I came away strengthened by the resolve and the unprecedented unity of spirit among the people in overcoming this tragedy, both the army of civilian volunteers from across the nation, local residents, and military officers and conscripts along with reservists as one.”

I confided in both Lefkovits and Tuttle-Singer that I can’t bring myself to write about issues not related to Israel (and, by extension, Iran and antisemitism) anymore. In a strange way, perhaps I was searching for permission from Israeli writers to pursue nonwar-related stories. Living in the U.S., I’m not as immersed as Israeli writers, and I can’t fight like the thousands of brave Israeli reservists and current soldiers. I can mostly use my metaphoric pen.

“Yes, the tragedy of October will motivate you, but let that allow you to share the beauty of Jewish life as well. We will never move on completely. We will always remember. Yet, we continue to build. That is so precious about Judaism.” – Sarah Tuttle-Singer

It was then that Tuttle-Singer reminded me that in Judaism, if a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at a crossroads, the wedding procession is entitled to proceed first. “For Jews, life comes first, so you do eventually have to go back to writing about life, because life sustains us,” she said. “Yes, the tragedy of October will motivate you, but let that allow you to share the beauty of Jewish life as well. We will never move on completely. We will always remember. Yet, we continue to build. That is so precious about Judaism.”

Long after this war is over, and the soldiers and hostages have hopefully returned home, I hope to look back and see that I and other writers did our best to respond to the extraordinary pain of this once-unimaginable time. I draw inspiration from writers in Israel, who continue to remind me that, unlike our enemies, Jews are not obsessed with death; in Tuttle-Singer’s words, we are “obsessed with life, so you must write about living.”


Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X/Twitter and Instagram @TabbyRefael

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