Lay-Offs Bring Curtain Down on Jewish Era at Village Voice

Recalling the Alternative Paper's Glory Days as Writers Leave

Voice of a Generation: Norman Mailer and Voice co-founder Daniel Wolf work in the paper’s Greenwich Village offices in 1964.
Fred W. McDarrah/getty images
Voice of a Generation: Norman Mailer and Voice co-founder Daniel Wolf work in the paper’s Greenwich Village offices in 1964.

By J. Hoberman

Published May 31, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

For much of its existence, the Village Voice was a paper where you could call a momzer a momzer and use just that term to do it. But the news in May that the out-of-town momzers who own the Voice had fired the paper’s last remaining signature writers — Michael Feingold, Michael Musto and Robert Sietsema: idiosyncratic, underground types all — effectively brings down the curtain on one of the most distinctive institutions in the history of New York journalism.

How Jewish was the Village Voice?

Well, New York’s countercultural paper of record was founded in 1955 by Brooklyn-born Jewish novelist Norman Mailer, Jewish political activist (and eventual senior adviser to Mayor Ed Koch) Dan Wolf and Edwin Fancher, a psychologist whom Wolf met in 1946 while standing in line to register for classes at The New School for Social Research under the GI Bill. Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, and Bob Dylan were all Voice heroes at one time or another. Tuli Kupferberg, the Beat poet and indefatigable member of the underground rock group, the Fugs, regularly contributed letters to the editor.

As for me, among the first articles I contributed to the paper was a 1976 piece on the revival of Yiddish-language talkies; among the people I interviewed was the great Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami, then 87 and living alone in small apartment in the West 90s. For all I know it may have been his last interview. (He died the following year).

The People United: Cartoonist Jules Feiffer (left) and columnist Nat Hentoff demonstrate during a 1977 strike against the Voice.
Fred W. McDarrah/getty images
The People United: Cartoonist Jules Feiffer (left) and columnist Nat Hentoff demonstrate during a 1977 strike against the Voice.

Ben-Ami was slightly grumpy regarding all Yiddish talkies — including “Grine Felder”— which he co-directed with Edgar G. Ulmer, as shund, or mere pulp. He was also a little discombobulated. At the end of the interview, he asked me what paper I was from. I told him, and he said, “Oh, the Vilna Voice.”

I liked that, and so did my Bronx-born editor, Richard Goldstein, the world’s first regular rock critic and, in newsroom parlance, my “rabbi” (the guy who brought me into the Voice). Goldstein made my story the lead arts piece. It started on the back cover, as was the practice in those days under Clay Felker, its celebrated owner. Goldstein even lifted a line from my description of “Grine Felder” to give the piece a quasi-Yiddish headline: “When ‘Shayneh Maydelehs’ Roamed the Silver Screen.”

Tellingly, there were actually readers who corrected our incorrect conjugation of the Yiddish plural. The Voice prided itself on its mastery of hipster slang. You could use Yiddish (or Kitchen Yiddish) with impunity in those days, although not, as rule, the transliteration from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Instead, fact checkers actually had a copy of Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” alongside their French and Spanish dictionaries. Rosten was the Voice’s arbiter of Yiddish usage.

At once provincial and cosmopolitan, the Village Voice of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was Jewish the way New York City was Jewish — or the way the local beatniks, hippies, radical activists and miscellaneous members of the luftmensch intelligentsia were Jewish. It was a strong flavor in the paper’s ethnic stew. Most of the locally born writers (of which there were many, including myself) were either Irish lapsed Catholics or secular Jews. (Guys with consonant-rich last names, like Robert Christgau and Ross Wetzsteon, were often assumed to be Jewish — after all, they wrote for the Voice.)

Later there were Latinos and Latinas (also largely local) as well as Asians. But most impressive in the 1980s and ’90s were the number of African-American writers and editors. These included Hilton Als, Carol Cooper, Stanley Crouch, Gary Dauphin, Thulani Davis, Nelson George, James Hannaham, Lisa Jones, Lisa Kennedy, Greg Tate, Colson Whitehead, Joe Wood and Ta-Nehisi Coates — a most impressive and variegated list.

Of course, not all identities at the Voice had an ethnic base. The paper had a large and vocal gay contingent and an even more outspoken group of feminists, not to mention leftists of all persuasions. We were unlike any other local publication. For me, that diversity was a great source of pride. It was also a source of great internal dissention. The Voice was a fruitfully argumentative place (something I also thought of as a Jewish form of discourse in the sense of my favorite saying, “Two Jews, three shuls”).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.