New York is, in tone and pace, one of the most Jewish cities in the world, and yet, most of time, you wouldn't know it from reading The New York Times. Of course, there are lots of stories about Jews throughout the paper, but they are not often about Jewish Jews. Occasionally, there are stories in the Metro section about something to do with Orthodox communities in Brooklyn or nearby Monsey. And there are the Jewish scandal stories. But a truly Jewish issue — that's rare.
And yet, within months of one another, two pieces about integral Jewish matters appeared in the pages of the Times.
The first came on March 27 in the Metro section, not surprisingly, but this time the story wasn't about warring Orthodox sects. It was about weaning teens off gossip, one hour at a time, as the headline announced it.
"It would seem an odd, perhaps even absurd announcement to make over a high school's public address system," began reporter Dan Levin.
"But at 11:15 each morning at the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls on Long Island, the voice of Emi Renov, a 17-year-old junior, buzzes over the intercom, gently reminding her fellow students to refrain from gossiping for the next 60 minutes."
I doubt that most readers of the Times know about Judaism's prohibitions against lashon hara, or evil speech, but Levin's piece did a fine job of laying out the terrain. As he noted, in the Talmud, the rabbis considered gossip to be as "grievous" a sin as murder.
The effort to "guard" one's speech "is part of a national campaign at Jewish high schools to use religious teachings to raise awareness about the power of speech, for good or ill."
The other article, also in the Metro section, appeared May 12 and described the workings of a kosher soup kitchen in Brooklyn, called Masbia (Hebrew for "satiate"), which serves 160 meals five nights a week, according to Times reporter Corey Kilgannon.
The piece noted that the people who frequent Masbia hardly fit the stereotype of bums and bag ladies. "The storefront [is] on 14th Street in [Borough Park]. Its operators say it is the only soup kitchen of its kind in the city, and at first glance it seems to have a dress code that is also unique. The men — and it is mostly men — wear dark suits, white button-down shirts and black hats.
" 'From a distance, they may look no different than a rich man, but if you look closer, you can see the difference,' said Mordechai Mandelbaum, a co-founder of the soup kitchen."
Closer scrutiny still revealed "subtle signs of hardship": a smudged shirt, a suit that needs pressing. Borough Park has been hit by the economic downturn, reporter Kilgannon added, and the kitchen strives to provide patrons with a "dignified place" to eat.
Masbia also has a "steak night," but only once a year, and it honors Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner of Kerestir, Hungary, who died in 1925 and was known for feeding the hungry.