Rosenthal paved way for Jews at the N.Y. Times

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Early in 1975, A.M. Rosenthal, the top editor of the New York Times, needed to hire a clerk. By the ostensible job description, the clerk would attend to the dross of taking messages and running errands.

Unofficially, the clerking position served as prelude to a reporting position. And by Times custom, the coveted apprenticeship invariably went to a polished product of the Ivy League. This time, however, Rosenthal selected a copy boy named Ari Goldman, a graduate of Yeshiva University and probably the only Orthodox Jew in the Times newsroom at the time.

The hiring of Goldman as his clerk pales beside the most obvious achievements Rosenthal’s 17 years leading the Times — publishing the Pentagon Papers in spite of opposition from the Nixon Administration; infusing vivid, stylish writing into the dully authoritative pages of the Good Gray Lady; rescuing the paper from financial peril through the creation of new sections covering topics from science to home decor, all of them sources of major advertising revenue.

Then again, Rosenthal’s selection of Goldman helps attest to another significant, if overlooked, element of his legacy. By the time he died last week at the age of 84, Rosenthal had done more than any one individual to reconcile the Times to its Jewish identity. He made being a Jew on the Times, or being a Jew of the Times, unashamedly, unexceptionally normal.

During Rosenthal’s early years on the paper (he was hired at the age of 21), the leading editors included two Southern patricians, Turner Catledge and Clifton Daniel. The so-called “bullpen” of editors tended to be mostly Roman Catholic.

Some of the Jews in the newsroom (or their parents) had anglicized their names, Shapiro becoming Shepard, Topolsky becoming Topping.

Amid such company, Rosenthal stuck out for reasons that only began with his name. He was born Abraham Michael Rosenthal on May 2, 1922. During his childhood in the Bronx, he lost four of his five sisters to illness and his father to an accident on his housepainter’s job. Rosenthal himself, stricken with osteomyelitis, lost use of his legs for a year and was cured only as the charity patient of a hospital. His life, suffused with tragedy and want, gave the lie to every nostalgic cliché about Jewish immigration.

There was nothing smooth about Rosenthal. Nor was he the least bit apologetic about the rough edges. Rosenthal had been formed by the Amalgamated Houses, an apartment complex subsidized by the garment workers’ union, and by City College, “the poor man’s Harvard.”

In his tempestuous nature, in his indifference to appearance, in his ravenous appetite for ideas and argumentation, he was a Jew from the Bronx. He could not have passed for a non-Jew if it would have saved him from the Spanish Inquisition.

Like many American Jews of his generation, Rosenthal combined pride in his heritage with ambivalence about Judaism. He did not have a bar mitzvah as a child. He married and had children with an Irish Catholic, Anne Burke. He worked on the High Holy Days. He kept none of the dietary laws. Yet he also had an intimate acquaintance with the consequences of Jewish identity in an often-hostile world.

It was understood, during Rosenthal’s early years as a reporter, that no Jew could represent the Times as a foreign correspondent. When the edict relaxed a bit, Rosenthal appealed for an open position in the Paris bureau. The answer came back from Cyrus Sulzberger, the publisher’s nephew, who was then serving as bureau chief, that Paris already had one Jew. Sulzberger meant Henry Giniger, the No. 2 man in the bureau. He did not even count himself as a member of the tribe.

When Rosenthal returned from his foreign postings in 1963 to become the metropolitan editor, he chose as his deputy Arthur Gelb, another child of the Jewish Bronx. Their partnership remained intact until Rosenthal retired as executive editor 23 years later, and it very much included the ease with which both wore their Jewishness, if not necessarily their Judaism. While overseeing coverage first of the city and then of the nation and world, “Abe” and “Arthur” (as they were invariably known in the newsroom) never lost track of where to get the best egg cream. They shared a certain sensibility born of their common past — an affinity for immigrants and the working class, a belief in the uplifting power of art, a revulsion at radical politics and urban violence.

As managing editor and then executive editor, the posts he occupied from 1969 until 1986, Rosenthal undid one of the Times’ final, unspoken limitations on Jews. This one held that no Jew could report on Israel, lest the bloody flag of dual loyalties be raised.

Rosenthal changed the nature of his Jewishness as he grew older. During the High Holy Days one year in the late 1960s, Gelb bought a pair of tickets to the Kol Nidre service at Central Synagogue in midtown Manhattan.

Gelb offered Rosenthal the spare ticket and he took it. The experience, as Gelb recalled, “was an epiphany.”

Midway through his 70s, Rosenthal returned to Central Synagogue to finally have a bar mitzvah.

Rude, noisy, opinionated, earthy, sentimental, mercurial, stubbornly unreconstructed no matter how his second wife made him over with designer suits and bow ties, Abe Rosenthal in death as in life barged through the doors as himself, a journalist nonpareil and an American Jew.