Tribute to Tribune's lost world

Arguably, the troubled newspaper’s niche market no longer exists

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 2, 2010

I was distressed - devastated would be a more accurate description - to read that the future of the Jewish Tribune is in doubt. It is a publication for which I have a genuine, if perverse, affection. To be frank, I'm addicted to it. When it arrives I devour its contents from last page to first.

What is it about this weekly Anglo-Yiddish scandal sheet that so mesmerises me?

To begin with, it's the paper's steadfast refusal to separate fact from comment.

Read any news story in any issue. What you are likely to get is a news item interspersed with sly off-the-cuff commentary judged likely to appeal to a triumphalist Charedi mindset.

The news coverage itself is highly selective. When, two years ago, it reported the tragic death of Rabbi Benzion Dunner, it dwelt at length on his apparent charitable instincts but omitted to mention the fact that he was under the influence of cocaine when driving the car in which he killed himself.

What became of the shopping bag full of packets of Osem soup?

It has - naturally - maintained a mafia-like silence on the sexual misdeeds of certain rabbonim on both sides of the Atlantic, but has delighted in poking fun at non-Orthodox movements. Quite oblivious to the injunction against loshen hora, [gossip] the JT has never permitted truth to stand in the way of dogma, and is proud of the fact.

And don't bother complaining about it to the Press Complaints Commission, a secular body whose authority it naturally refuses to recognise.

When I read the paper I do so back-to-front. First I read the Yiddish news (very recently moved to a tear-out supplement in the middle of the paper), which is likely to be much more informative and a good deal franker than the English.

This may be because the JT still believes, mistakenly, that its Yiddish section is only read by Charedim. In 1978 this miscalculation resulted in an appalling Yiddish editorial criticising Labour MP Greville Janner for defending black people in Parliament. The editorial was immediately republished in translation by the West Indian World, resulting in what I would describe as the greatest self-inflicted chillul hashem [desecration of God's name] suffered by British Jewry for a generation. But it told us a great deal about the JT and its readership.

Once I've finished perusing the Yiddish section I turn, for light relief, to the classified ads. "Are you flying to Eretz Yisroel on a Thursday? You can earn extra by taking approximately 11 kilos to Yerusholayim." Eleven kilos of what? The ad (July 29 last) didn't say.

The "Lost and Found" column is always good for a laugh. Jewellery. Coats. Talitot. A shopping bag containing packets of Osem soups (June 24). Even sheitels. What stories could possibly lurk behind these appeals?

Then I turn to the Letters page. Some of this correspondence discusses obscure (though not uninteresting) halachic matters. Others are pure self-advertisement. To its credit the JT does permit a modest degree of communal self-criticism (recently over Charedi school admissions policies, of which more in a moment).

Then there are letters that conceal more than they reveal. Last year the paper published a complaint about simchas held in private homes that had only one entrance/exit door.

My curiosity aroused, I contacted the letter-writer, who informed me that her concern had been with "unnecessary mingling in a narrow, confined space, to the point that touching and bumping into each other becomes unavoidable, as occurred to me at a recent kiddush".

I hastened to reassure the lady that were she ever to attend a kiddush at my home we had two front doors (truly), two toilets and a rear entrance through the garden, so no embarrassing mingling of the sexes need ever occur.

And what is one to make of the editorial proclamation (April 12) that the JT would not publish letters from "concerned bubbas?"

Founded in 1962 in the wake of the Louis Jacobs Affair, and in reaction against the Jewish Chronicle's support for Rabbi Jacobs, the JT caters for a niche market. But there are signs that this niche is no longer attractive as a bolt-hole for younger Charedim who are fully wired into the internet and who are disgusted by the rabbinically-mandated social bullying (verging, I would say, on blackmail) that is central to the world for which the JT caters.

In recent weeks I've been approached by a number of these younger brethren on the issue of Charedi schools' admissions practices. That they have decided to approach me and not the JT, says it all.

Last updated: 11:28am, September 2 2010