Why’s a Jewish Woman Running a Black Paper?

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.
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A Jewish editor would be an unusual presence at most black newspapers, but at few places more so than the famed Amsterdam News.

For the past few decades, the weekly, Harlem-based publication has achieved notoriety in no small measure due to its frequent run-ins with Jewish antagonists. Those battles were often sparked by the paper’s longtime owner and editor, Wilbert Tatum, who pulled few punches in his criticism of Jewish leaders and organizations.

But as Tatum never shied away from pointing out, he had a Jewish wife and daughter. That daughter, Elinor Ruth Tatum, has been slowly assuming the reins of the paper from her father since 1997. She continued to make space on the paper’s distinctive red-and-black front page for her father’s essays — such as one about vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman in 2000, in which Tatum said that Lieberman was put on the ticket to attract Jewish money from around the globe.

Since her father’s death on February 26, at age 76, Elinor Tatum has moved into complete control of the Amsterdam News. The distinctively New York tale of a Jewish editor at America’s most prominent black newspaper has been a complex and evolving story, and it is not over yet.

“She sees herself as the child of a black father and a Jewish mother — and she is very clear on that. There’s no Christian in her mind where she stands,” said Karl Rodney, who became friends with the Tatums through his work as the owner of The New York Carib News.

But, Rodney said, Elinor’s Judaism “doesn’t diminish, to any extent, her own identification with the black community. She articulates the black position in this city quite well.”

Even before Elinor took over, the Tatums were one of the most dynamic families when it came to New York’s black-Jewish relations. Wilbert Tatum was a Baptist involved in politics during the civil rights era with rabbi and social activist Balfour Brickner, and it was during that era that he met his wife to be, Czechoslovakian Jew Susan Kohn.

The Tatums lived with their only child — not in Harlem, but in the East Village. In 1998, Elinor Tatum told the Forward: “I just moved out of my parents’ apartment, but I couldn’t leave the neighborhood. It’s right near all the old Yiddish theaters. It’s so alive.” (Tatum declined to speak with the Forward for this article, citing preparations for her father’s funeral.)

People who know the Tatums say that though the family was not deeply observant and Elinor did not have a bat mitzvah, family members were regular attendees at the High Holy Day services at Brickner’s synagogue.

“I can tell you exactly where they would sit each year,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, who took over the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue from Brickner. “None of them did it for show. They were very serious.”

After an early career in New York politics, Wilbert Tatum purchased the Amsterdam News in 1971 with a group of investors. The paper had an abiding interest in the Jewish world, because of Harlem’s historic Jewish character and the lingering presence of many Jewish business owners in the area.

Tatum was a social impresario, and he slowly became the combative, passionate voice of the paper, taking sole ownership of it in the 1980s. Some of his most controversial writing came during the riots between the Jews and blacks of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights in 1991, when Tatum drew attention to the imbalance between the police response to Jewish and black rioters — leading with the headline, “Many Blacks, No Jews Arrested.”

Bretton-Granatoor said he always believed that Tatum was speaking to his own people in a language that was not always put in proper context by the Jewish community. “That was the language of the civil rights movement,” he said. “It was the language of outrage. That’s what he expected his community needed to hear to get the discussion going.”

Much of the organized Jewish community, though, took a more antagonistic stance. The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, one of Tatum’s biggest foes, told the Forward that in times of crisis, “rather than using his voice, his personal authority, to calm the waters, he poured oil on it.”

Elinor Tatum began working at the paper soon out of college and was given the title of editor in chief in 1997 — on the same day that she graduated from New York University’s school of journalism. Robert Seixas, who came on as Tatum’s assistant, told the Forward recently that the younger Tatum’s Judaism primarily came up when her father was accused of antisemitism. “She would just laugh at that,” Seixas said. “She just couldn’t believe it.’

In her 1998 Forward interview, Elinor defended her father’s support of people like Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has been a bete-noir of the Jewish community. “Taken out of context, Farrakhan can be seen as antisemitic, but he’s no antisemite,” she had said.

Seixas, however, said that Tatum did seem to be quietly navigating the different strands of her identity.

“She had the double issue of being half black and half Jewish — and I think for her, she had to overcome that.” Seixas said. “I knew it was something that she grappled with — how people viewed her, and how people viewed her father.”

One of the people who has seen this up close is Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who said that he has become the younger Tatum’s rabbi over the past decade. Schneier said that after he met Elinor in the 1990s, she introduced him to her Jewish boyfriends, one of whom she had to drag to a Passover Seder at Schneier’s house.

Schneier said he sensed that Tatum had more positive views of the larger Jewish community than her father but was hesitant to push his views aside.

“One needs to understand that there is a human element there, in terms of a father and his child,” Schneier said. “Even if she did feel a certain way, she still wanted to respect her father, and that was some kind of balance that she had to strive for.”

At the paper, the younger Tatum has almost never called attention to her Jewish identity. A current employee, Paul Grenada, said that “where her heritage lies doesn’t really come into play.”

But Jewish communal leaders in New York say that the adversarial positions the paper once took toward Jewish figures have largely receded.

“Once Elinor was in charge, it was like reading a different paper,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, head of the New York Board of Rabbis. “Elinor has really attempted to widen the path.”

In an informal survey of recent articles that discuss Judaism, a significant number are about cooperative efforts between the black and Jewish community. Ken Smikle, who oversees black media at Target Market News, said that the younger Tatum has been a representative of a more youthful, less cynical generation of black journalists.

“It’s a perspective that is suited for an Obama kind of world,” Smikle said. “You look at yourself as a black person in the context of the larger community, not just the black community.”

Unfortunately, this has not been a formula for success. The circulation has dropped: Today it is at slightly more than 11,000, down from nearly 26,000 in 1998, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. June Cross, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, said that the paper has maintained its influence among Harlem’s elite, but has operated with a skeletal staff that makes it hard to do more than reprint press releases.

The sinking sales figures at the Amsterdam News reminded Potasnik of something Wilbert Tatum told him when someone raised questions about a story in the newspaper. “He told me: ‘Rabbi, you stick to the sermons. Let me sell papers.’”

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