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).
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”).