The NYT’s Jewspotting


I wish Brad Greenberg would rise from the depths of law school finals because I would love to read his take on a recent New York Times piece “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana.”

The author tells a story about how a Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. How cute, right? People love animal stories, I guess, and what better way to combine it than with religion?

Here’s some background on the Jewish population in Montana.

Though there are few Jews in Montana today, there once were many. In the late 19th century, there were thriving Jewish populations in the mining towns, where Jews emigrated to work as butchers, clothiers, jewelers, tailors and the like.

The city of Butte had kosher markets, a Jewish mayor, a B’nai B’rith lodge and three synagogues. Helena, the capital city, had Temple Emanu-El, built in 1891 with a seating capacity of 500. The elegant original facade still stands, but the building was sold and converted to offices in the 1930s, when the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the Jewish population having mostly assimilated or moved on to bigger cities.

… Hanukkah has a special significance in Montana these days. In Billings in 1993, vandals broke windows in homes that were displaying menorahs. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than 10,000 of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their own windows, to protect the city’s three dozen or so Jewish families. The vandalism stopped.

The writer says that in a minor revival, Montana now has three rabbis. That seems like an itty bitty revival to me, so I’m a little bit confused why this is newsworthy.

Without Greenberg, I turn to Slate‘s Jack Shafer, who takes it on in his piece “Jewspotting: In which the New York Times expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places.” Shafer gives links to several previous Times articles that suggest this is a larger trend for the newspaper. “Pseudo-exotic Jewspotting has become so common in the Times that the paper might as well turn the genre into a standing feature,” he writes.

Jewspotting stories appear to be about something when they’re really about nothing. Then why such enthusiasm for them at the Times? Because journalists love to write about holdouts–the guy who refuses to sell his home, the Papua New Guinea tribe that won’t become “civilized,” the last blacksmith in town, the last survivor of World War I, even the last Oldsmobile. Rarity stories are easy to write, and their sappiness makes them even easier to read.

In a blog post for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ben Harris replies, “Why We Love Jewspotting.”

Every time I’d tell someone I was going to write about Jews in Arkansas, I got the same response: There are Jews in Arkansas?!?

Yes, I’d tell them, but only a handful. Clearly, this was news and I was reporting it.

We might ask, of course, why that seems so surprising. Jews are a pretty well dispersed people (although considerably less so as time goes on). And ultimately my standard for news is different than the Times’. I write for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, so what’s happening with the Jews of Arkansas, or Montana, or wherever, is intrinsically newsworthy to us.

But if Shafer is really in need of a news flash, he might try this one: The New York Times really likes writing about Jew-y stuff.

The rest of the Times article is devoted to the dog story.

So all is well in the Jewish community here because the Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue.

But the big winner is the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn who is working hard (against tough odds) to bring his Lubavitch movement to Montana. He has been scouring the state for anyone who can speak Hebrew, and is elated to have found a German shepherd he can talk to.

I’m not heartless. I love dogs. I love that apparently, all is well in the Jewish community in Montana. But I’m with Shafer on this one: the story seems lacking. I’d be much more interested in hearing from the Rabbis on what it means to be in a community in Montana rather than in New York City or another place where there are more Jews. What are the challenges? Are there any benefits? This is where I’d love Greenberg’s take because I don’t want to dismiss the story entirely. But is there a way to give the story more umph? Weigh in, my friends.

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  • J. Lahondere

    I started to read the NYT article the other day and was quite surprised when I realized it was about Montana! I live in Montana. I’ve lived here most of my life. Funny enough, I actually did spend several years in New York City as an LDS missionary. It seemed New Yorkers knew as much about Montana as Montanans about New Yorkers (i.e. not a lot).

    In my 18 years here, I have only met one or two Jewish Montanans (as far as I know). As a Mormon in Montana, I think Montanans are usually very welcoming of different religious beliefs. However, there has not been anything in local news in regards to the sudden surge in Jewish people. It was a very nice article. In the end, I assumed it was just a nice little happy piece for Christma– Hannukah… The Holidays.

    But yeah, it kind of reinforces various stereotypes.

  • Peter

    It’s a column, not a news story. And it’s a cute story. Yes, there’s a bit of Jewspotting going on, but the dog hook was terrific and it had a great ending. Shafer appears to be taking part in another past-time in some parts of the blogosphere, “Timesbashing.”

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for your input, J. and Peter. I don’t think the story in and of itself is bad, but I still wonder whether there were angles he could take that would have made it more compelling.

  • J. Lahondere

    It really was a pleasant story, and I agree with Sarah. As a Montanan, I was very curious to learn about rabbis and the Jewish community in my state. I got the impression from the story that I was supposed to have known about these people, as if they were a noticeable (if dwindling) fixture here. It was the first I’d ever heard of them, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t a little bit more. Nice story, though.

  • Brian Walden

    It’s good read and kind of story I’d expect from a local paper or a Jewish paper, but I also wonder how it ended up in the NYT.

  • Perpetua

    I liked the part about the people putting the menorahs in their windows.

  • Tyson K

    Part of this, in my opinion, has to do with the New York Times being the New York Times. Jewish issues get a lot of coverage in the Times, but that’s appropriate because Jews and Jewish culture have had a lot of influence on New York City, and still do today. Needless to say, New Yorkers take it for granted that there a lot of Jewish people around, and they form an important cultural element. What perhaps they don’t realize is that in much of the rest of the country, especially rural areas, this simply isn’t the case. I grew up in a fairly typical small town in Missouri, and suffice it to say I have never known of any Jews ever living there. Because Jewish issues are so important in New York, the Times transposes this importance onto the rest of the country, even when events aren’t particularly newsworthy, and we end up with articles like this.

  • Dan

    The LA Times recently had a similar story on the front page. It was about a Jewish holdout in Boyle Heights, an area in East LA that was once a Jewish neighborhood but is now almost entirely Hispanic.

  • Karen Vaughan

    Tyson, it is Hanukkah, and so time for seasonal Hanukkah stories. Heck I even wrote one for my New York health blog and I’m not Jewish.

    This was also a followup story to the 1993 story the New York Times covered where the Montanans put the menorahs in their window after Jewish residents were harassed. That first story fit into several NY Times areas of interest: civil rights, communities uniting and taking an unusual step to protect a minority, Jewish issues, outland exotica, slice of life.

    This Hanukkah story would clearly have been stronger if it had interviewed the rabbi on how different his job is in a place like Montana, although it would have been a very different story. But it revives the first story and brings an historical look at population shifts, discusses an unknown Israel dog training and export program, as well as being a light look at a state that is largely unknown to most New Yorkers. And it engages the Jewish issues readers and the massive dog lover readership alike.