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.
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There wasn’t a specific Jewish beat. But, besides my license to employ Yiddishisms freely, I would write up the occasional Yiddish play, and review Yiddish books in translation. After I became the lead film critic in 1988, I was able to prioritize as I saw fit, giving a lot of attention to movies or documentaries on Jewish subjects and (related in my mind) to films from Eastern Europe. When “Shoah” was first released, in 1985, I wrote two features — an interview with its director, Claude Lanzmann, and a report on the movie’s reception.

Feminist: Critic Ellen Willis wrote about politics, culture and women for the alternative paper.
courtesy of university of minnesota press
Feminist: Critic Ellen Willis wrote about politics, culture and women for the alternative paper.

In those days, there was international reporting: Israel was covered, usually but not exclusively, from a critical perspective. For a while, Yossi Klein Halevi, a lapsed disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, served as the paper’s regular Israel correspondent. The late Ellen Willis did the occasional brilliant piece on anti-Semitism. (Let me say that hers is a voice I continue to miss. Hardly a week goes by without a political development that would inspire me to wonder, “What would Ellen think?”) Brooklyn street kid Jack Newfield was the chief muckraker and Nat Hentoff, who wrote liner notes for Dylan’s first LP, planted the Voice’s flag on the First Amendment.

In the spring of 1995, when the paper was still flush, Goldstein and Editor-in- Chief Karen Durbin came up with the idea of a yearly Jewish supplement. I got to write a piece that I really loved headlined “Artists Invent a New Jewish Tradition: Diasporama!” It was a great section, but there was no advertising base, and so the supplement proved to be a one-off.

The Voice began its decline well before it was acquired by the Phoenix-based New Times chain in 2006. But that hostile takeover truly marked the beginning of the end. I was okay for a while. Tony Ortega, the only New Times lifer to serve as editor in chief, let me write a feature on Elliott Gould and the “Jew Wave” movies of the ’60s and ’70s. He even put it on the cover. (Gould was incensed, imagining that the cover illustration was designed to make him look like Borat.) Ortega, however, was taking orders from “corporate” and was in no position to go native, so that echt Voice feature evoking the old days proved to be an anomaly. Ironically, the ascension of the New Times made me feel more Jewish than ever. To have been a Voice staffer for the first nine months of 2006 was to live under occupation.

It was clear that, even though they renamed their company Village Voice Media, our new out-of-town owners loathed the paper and its staff — and seemed frightened of New York. Thus, we suffered contemptuous overlords who instituted capricious disciplinary rules and contrived regular (if metaphoric) bloodbaths. For a time, a Voice staffer who had worked for the New Times was installed as a sort of one-man Judenrat. As the office emptied out, it became painful even to be there. Haunted by the ghosts of fired colleagues and suffering a form of survivor guilt, I had to work as if with blinders. It was a lonely situation. (Former books editor Ed Park’s novel “Personal Days” gives some of the period’s feel. Parks was first told that books were irrelevant and was subsequently fired via conference call.)

I had been involved in the creation of the Voice union back during the late 1970’s when it was acquired, however improbably, by Rupert Murdoch. We were affiliated then with District 65, a leftist, heavily Jewish local representing “distributive workers.” (Our custom-designed health care package not only included “domestic partners” of any gender — a rarity back then — but also subsidized the consumer-costly, so-called Jewish science, psychoanalysis!) I was only moderately active, mainly as a steward. But I wound up heavily reinvolved in the union once we were taken over by the New Times — who were not just downsizers, but union busters.

In 2011 I was the chief negotiator, mainly by default. Almost none of the other union stalwarts was left. The negotiations were predictably acrimonious; suffice to say that we preserved our medical coverage and less than six months later, I was “laid off.”

Most likely they would have axed me in any case; my union rabble-rousing only gave the owners an additional incentive. It also gave me a source of pride that I had long since stopped feeling as a Voice staffer. I felt like I went down fighting, and not only for myself. It was what I would consider a Jewish way to go.

Contact J. Hoberman at feedback@forward.com


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