Sixteen years after I retired as senior editor, I’m back as a regular J. columnist. It’s a homecoming of sorts, and I know all too well what it’s like to be away from journalism.
In 1992, the year I turned 50, the Oakland Tribune, where I was a longtime features writer, went belly-up and was sold to a media conglomerate. Suddenly, I was out of work. Moreover, I had just sold my longtime home in Walnut Creek, after my divorce, and was in escrow for a condo in Alameda. But with the loss of my job, I lost the condo.
Concerned about finances and with two children in college, I took the first job I was offered: publications editor at a state university. I moved to a city where I knew nobody and rented an ostensibly luxury apartment across from the university. Unfortunately, whenever I took a shower, the smoke alarm went off. Even worse, my apartment overlooked an all-night Jack in the Box, and the cacophony from customers’ boom boxes often awakened me at 2 a.m.
My salary, plus my income as a writing instructor at the university, was decent, but I was miserable. When my parents came to visit, they were seriously concerned about me. So was the therapist I visited at a co-worker’s suggestion.
“You’re clinically depressed,” the therapist determined. But when the university let me go after seven months, oddly enough, my depression seemed to lift overnight. Why was I sacked, or more euphemistically, why didn’t I survive my trial employment?
“It’s just not a match,” I was told. “You think like a journalist, like an outsider. You don’t understand the corporate culture.”
Corporate culture? It was a bureaucracy.
Afterward, one congenial co-worker phoned to say he was sorry: “You were a round peg in a square hole.” he said.
One of my last assignments was to interview the university’s acting president, using a tape recorder so I could obtain direct quotes for a Q&A. My supervisor pre-approved my questions and sat in on the interview.
Unfortunately, she and her own supervisor didn’t approve of everything the acting president had to say, so they changed his quotes. But in the interest of honesty, they omitted the fact that the interview had been taped.
“We don’t lie,” my supervisor said, by way of explanation.
If you think like a journalist, what can you do but shake your head? Or in my case, cry, take long walks and send out resumes.
Not long after, I moved back to the East Bay and freelanced. Meanwhile, the Jewish Bulletin, forerunner to J., advertised for a copy editor. Along with my resume, I sent a chutzpadik letter to Woody Weingarten, then the managing editor. The opening: “Why am I applying for a job at the Jewish Bulletin when I know you pay bupkes?”
I was hired.
Before I accepted the position, I asked Marc Klein, then editor and publisher, what the Bulletin would offer besides an admittedly low salary.
“We’re offering you the opportunity to stay in journalism,” he said.
Perhaps that was exactly the therapy I needed at the time. Journalism was a voyage home, and Jewish journalism returned me to a lost heritage.
But best of all, having a job at the Bulletin is how, in 1999, I met Allen, whom I married a year later. As an employee, I could place a free personal ad in the newspaper’s Such-a-Match section. Allen spotted my ad when picking up his tenant’s mail. Delivering a toast at our wedding, Marc couldn’t resist saying, “A Jewish Bulletin he didn’t even pay 75 cents for!”
Allen reached into his pocket, pulled out three quarters and offered them to Marc as a bride price.
The following summer, while distributing Bulletins during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s run in Menlo Park, Allen shouted to folks lined up outside the theater: “Get your red-hot Jewish Bulletin! I met my wife through the Jewish Bulletin. It’s a great publication!”
Life is short, and Allen makes me laugh. But I’m not laughing at my decision to become a Jewish journalist. J. has called me home.