Departing editor seeks Jewish unity

Q&A

May 04, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

His opinions can bring strong reactions -- pro and con -- as in his recent column criticizing synagogue services and awards banquets as "dull, predictable and unimaginative." For two decades, few people in Baltimore have commented as often or as knowledgeably about Jews for Jews as Gary Rosenblatt.

Since 1974 he's been the editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, an award-winning weekly with a circulation of 19,000, and is executive editor of its sister papers in Atlanta and Detroit. Next month, he leaves Baltimore to become editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York, with a circulation of 110,000.

Mr. Rosenblatt, 46, is a graduate of Baltimore's Talmudical Academy and New York's Yeshiva University and did postgraduate work at City College of New York. He is the son and grandson of prominent Orthodox rabbis, the late Morris D. Rosenblatt of Annapolis and Louis Friedlander of Baltimore.

QUESTION: Did the new Holocaust Museum in Washington live up to your expectations?

ANSWER: During the 15 or so years of discussions about it, I've had mixed feelings. I had serious reservations about spending that much money -- about $170 million -- on a museum. I would have preferred that that kind of money be spent on Jewish education, on getting more American Jewish kids to Israel, for example, for a year of quality time before they go to college.

It's probably not a fair equation, because I don't think you could raise $170 million for the kinds of things I would be more interested in. This is not meant to denigrate, obviously, anything about the Holocaust, but maybe even those people who died would have wanted Jewish continuity, Jewish educational programs, to be emphasized.

Having said all that, I found the museum very powerful. I was very impressed with it. I would encourage people to go, now that it's there.

Q: Does anything about the museum concern you?

A: A big question mark for me is, who is going to go? Jews and Holocaust survivors and schoolchildren are going to go, but I think they're counting on most of the visitors being tourists who are in Washington.

They see a long line for the Washington Monument or one of the traditional museums, and they say, "OK, honey, let's go into this new museum." And it's not something you should go into unprepared.

It's not fun.

A concern I've written about is that what most Americans are going to come away with knowing -- about Jews -- is how they died. And people will wonder, why are they always persecuted?

Another concern is that it made me aware at times of being a voyeur. Not because it was so graphic. Even kids today are used to seeing all kinds of violence.

It just felt like you were impinging on the victims' privacy. . . .. For me, the most powerful parts are still the quiet parts. You see a whole area of thousands of shoes, and you don't have to say anything.

Q: Is there too much emphasis on remembering and commemorating the Holocaust? Comment on what's been called "the Shoah industry."

A: As someone has said, "There's no business like Shoah business."

It's good the Holocaust has come to the fore. When I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, it just wasn't talked about. I guess "The Diary of Anne Frank" was the one exception.

But there's also a downside, I guess. Sometimes there's insensi

tivity or glitziness. I get disturbed when, in an abortion debate, they'll call abortion a "holocaust." The word has been cheapened.

Q: How do you feel about the comparisons of the Serbs' "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia to the Holocaust?

A: I'm proud that the Jewish community nationally has been at the forefront of making this case and has not been saying that because the Holocaust was a particularly Jewish experience it wouldn't want to draw parallels to what's going on now.

I think the opposite is true. While Jews still feel the Holocaust was uniquely Jewish in what happened then, it's more important that the lesson of it be transmitted to what's going on now.

Q: Are you an optimist or pessimist on the question of Jewish survival?

A: It depends on what day you ask me.

America's organized Jewish community is discovering Israel as a resource to keep American Jews Jewish. On one level, the Holocaust did that with the previous generation. Maybe it was the guilt component.

But for younger people who were born long after the Holocaust, I don't think there is that emotional tie. So then it became Israel -- look what the Israelis are doing, how they're putting their lives on the line, fighting the wars in a sense for us.

But I still feel that American Jewry hasn't found its own reason or rationale or identity. It's always using the vicarious means of the Holocaust experience or the Israel experience.

It's still finding its own Jewish experience.

Q: If you could be granted any wish, what would it be for Baltimore's Jews?

A: That they appreciate each other more and listen to each other more. I have come to appreciate what different parts of the Jewish community are doing, and I realize sometimes how one part doesn't know what another part is doing.

I want to say sometimes to my Orthodox friends, "I wish you'd come with me and see what these Reform people are doing at this soup kitchen, how they're going out at night."

And I'd like to say to the Reform people, "You should see how much charity these Orthodox people give to institutions you've never heard of."

It's sort of like a big family dinner, and you're the host. You've got some relatives who don't speak to each other, cousins who don't relate to each other, but you try to make this thing work. And everybody comes because deep down, everybody has something in common.

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