January 22, 2019

Thank you for reading, even if you don’t like me

The annual Celebrate Israel festival at Rancho Park in Los Angeles is the time for me to face the music.

I don’t mean the Israeli pop blasting from the Western Wall of amplifiers on the main stage, amps that always seem directed right at the Jewish Journal booth.

I mean the thousands of festival-goers who all find time to make their way to the Journal’s booth to complain about me.

To my face.

I arrived in the afternoon. By then, I was told, several irate readers had come by looking for me.

One, an elderly American man with a slight gray beard, stopped by to say how much he hated my column last week defending actor Ed Asner’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. I wasn’t there at the time, so he told our managing editor, Ryan Smith, that he would return to set me straight about “Ed Asher.”   

Just as I sat behind our display of current issues, a woman with curly blond hair approached me.

“You’re Rob!” she said. And, like an idiot, I smiled and said yes.

“You’re in too much of the paper,” she said. 

I didn’t understand. I explained I had just one column, but others who often took opposing views had columns, as well. I explained that our policy is to maintain a balance of all points of view in the Journal — one of the few websites and news weeklies that strives to do so, I pointed out, proudly.

“No, no,” she shook her head. “There’s too much you. I don’t know how, but it’s not fair.” Her voice rose, zero to 160 decibels in an instant. “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

At that moment, TRIBE Media President David Suissa showed up, the Moroccan Jewish cavalry. 

He slipped into our booth.   

“I like yours!” she said of his weekly column. “And Dennis Prager’s.”

“I have an idea,” I offered the woman. “Instead of complaining about me, why not praise him?”

David engaged her, and I was able to move off to the side — where a man with an Israeli flag pin was waiting to speak to me.

“You …,” he started.  “You …”

I held my hand out to shake his. “What is it?” I asked.

“I can’t explain,” he said. “I read your columns and I agree with your points … but your conclusions are so wrong.”

“You like Dennis and David, right?”

“Yes, but that’s not it,” he said. “You’re just wrong.”

An Israeli-American man approached David and me and said he likes both our columns.

“But who do you like better?” David asked. “C’mon, get off the fence.”

He turned a bit red. “David,” he said.

Then he asked for a picture with both of us, maybe just because he felt bad for me.

At this point, I was 0 for 10. I felt like the waiter in the Jewish joke who approaches a table of diners and asks, “Is anything all right?”

And it got worse.

A man came up to me and asked, in Hebrew, a question about advertising. We fell into conversation. A woman overheard us.

“Rob Eshman speaks Hebrew?” she said — and walked away. The implication was clear — how bizarre it was that someone she deemed so anti-Israel would bother to learn the language.

About 10 feet away, meanwhile, a middle-aged woman started to approach the booth. She saw my face, recognized me from my column photo, and a look of visible disgust washed over her. She walked away.

I only wish I was being oversensitive, but she wouldn’t come near the booth as long as I was there.

It went on like this, and I had only been there an hour.

Yes, on and off, people came up and said they loved the paper, they loved the website, but even those compliments came with caveats. Like the time last year when a religious man said he wished the Journal could be more like Jewish Insider, which produces a balanced, inclusive morning newsletter out of Washington, D.C.

“That’s ours,” I told him. “Jewish Insider is part of TRIBE Media.”

“That’s you?” he said, astonished. “But it’s so good!”

I know the festival, even with its 10,000 or so attendees, represents just a slice of this massive community. It just happens to be the slice that doesn’t agree with my views, especially on Israel. And part of being a community paper means letting people yell at you, and not yelling back.

After a couple hours of abuse, I broke for hummus. The line at the Hummus Yummy truck was long, loud and chaotic — in a word, it was Israel. I was pushed up against the truck window.  The owner opened it and said in Hebrew, “Move, friend, I don’t want to scream in your ear.”

Then he screamed in my ear, “ANAT, YOUR FALAFEL IS READY!” 

The hummus was good. So was the watermelon. Then I returned to the booth, and waited for Ed Asher.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.