Abraham Michael Rosenthal of The New York Times, who died last week at the age of 84, was eulogized Sunday as a great foreign correspondent, a formidable editor and a compassionate columnist. He was indeed all those things, but he was also a Jew who did so much over his brilliant 60-year career to honor the memory of the Holocaust and to support the State of Israel.
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, who conducted the funeral at Central Synagogue on Manhattan’s East Side, likened him to the biblical King David: “The fiercest warrior and a perceptive writer of psalms.”
Elie Wiesel said Abe demonstrated that it is possible to love the State of Israel “every bit as much as to love our own country.”
And Nicholas Kristof, who, like Abe, won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Times, said, “Abe fought to cure our blind spots — one of them, the Holocaust.”
Although the Times editors who hired him decades ago gave him the byline A.M., on Sunday everyone knew him as Abe.
I was privileged to have had a front-row seat to his evolution as a Jew and, in some small measure, to be part of it.
Although his detractors described him as ruthless and arbitrary, Abe was forever a kind and generous presence in my life. He hired me as a reporter in 1975, and later sent me to Harvard to study comparative religion. Our first introduction came in 1973, when I was a new copy boy at the Times.
Copy boys barely exist anymore on the staff of American newspapers; computers made them obsolete. But in the early 1970s, copy boys were the lifeblood of the paper, carrying “raw” or unedited copy and later, edited copy from reporter to editor to composing room and back again, sometimes through the night.
Copy boys didn’t talk much to editors, especially to the paper’s top editor, who legend had it knew everything going on in the newsroom, but I so much wanted to meet Abe that I put my fears aside. After all, he had started at the paper in the same capacity that I had, as a college correspondent. “I’m Ari Goldman,” I said, extending my hand. “I was the stringer from Yeshiva University.”
“Oh, you’re the one,” he said with a warm smile. “You won’t work on Saturdays. Well, let me tell you, that could be a problem in this business.”
I thought my Times career was over, but much to my surprise, it was just beginning. Within the year, Abe plucked me from among all the copy boys to be his personal clerk. This was long before e-mail, so I spent most of my day hand-delivering his messages to editors all over the third-floor newsroom and occasionally to the very top of the journalistic pyramid — the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, on the 14th floor.
My other tasks were to keep Abe’s liquor cabinet stocked and to make sure that there was always a fresh pack of Marlboros on his desk. Sometimes he’d tell me that I should stop running around and sit myself down. We’d talk about Israeli politics and about Jewish observance. He told me that in his impoverished and tragedy-scarred childhood (at a young age, he lost his father and several of his sisters), there was little time for religious practice and little reason for faith. He told me that he knew some Yiddish phrases but regretted that he did not know any Hebrew. “My grandfather,” he told me several times, “was Orthodox.”
After I spent six months as his clerk, Abe promoted me to reporter. For my byline, there was never any talk of changing my first name into initials, the way his editors had turned Abe into A.M. a generation earlier. My Jewish name and my Jewish ways were safeguarded.
Although I was cast out into the competitive Times newsroom to fend for myself, Abe kept me in the loop of his Jewish friends. I watched his developing relationship with Wiesel, who frequently joined him at Sabbath dinners at the home of the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman. The rabbi and Abe had ties other than religious ones: In an act of divine deliverance, the two were paired as “buddies” in a Smoke Enders program; they supported each other as they struggled to get over their cigarette addiction.
I was never invited to either Smoke Enders or the Sabbath dinners, but I knew that both Kelman and Wiesel had a life-changing effect on Abe.
In 1985, his last year as executive editor, Abe granted my wish for a sabbatical to study comparative religion. He sent me to Harvard Divinity School so that I could become a better religion writer for the paper.
The book I wrote based on that year, “The Search for God at Harvard,” begins with this acknowledgment: “My parents gave me a love for Judaism and the freedom to pursue a career in journalism; Abe Rosenthal gave me the opportunities.”
Abe stepped down as executive editor in 1986 at the age of 65 — the mandatory retirement age for Times executives. A year later, he began writing a column, “On My Mind,” on the Times op-ed page and kept it going until 1999, when the column was taken away from him.
When Abe was a columnist, his personal politics and passions — which were rarely in evidence in all the years that he ran the Times — emerged full blown. While he often said that his goal as editor was “to keep the paper straight,” there was no such restraint in his columns. He wrote extensively about human right around the world. He was the champion of Tibetans, the poor in India, Christians in China and women in Africa. And he was zealously and unapologetically in favor of Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself.
Many people were surprised at his advocacy for Israel, but I was not. Over our years of friendship, I had acquired a special window into his soul.
In 2003, Abe had what appeared to be a stroke. I went to visit him in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. By then, we had both left the Times. I had become a professor at Columbia, and he was now writing a column for the New York Daily News.
I asked him why he wanted to be A.M. Rosenthal of the Daily News after such a distinguished career as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times. His answer was succinct: “Because I have so much to say.”
He asked me about my family. I began to tell him what everyone was up to, when he asked, “Do you have a picture?” I took one out of my wallet and handed it to him. Abe held it up close to his face and stared into the small family portrait. “Beautiful!” he exclaimed. Then he proceeded to kiss each image in the photo.
“Do they speak Hebrew?” he asked.
“Yes. All of them,” I said.
“I wish I knew Hebrew,” he said. It was like the conversations we had had in his office 25 years earlier, long before I had a family. “I know some Yiddish, but no Hebrew.”
Abe told me that he worries about the future of Israel and of Jews in general. “Thank God we have Elie Wiesel,” he said. “But who is going to follow him?”
He said that we have to act immediately on behalf of Israel. “You don’t have to tell me now, Ari,” he said, “but what can we do to help Jews? What can we do? I’m worried. Very worried.”
“What can we do?” he continued. “Think of two things. You’ll do one, and I’ll do the other.”
I told him that through his writings, he’s done so much already.
“You are very beloved,” I told him. “People in the Jewish community cheer when they hear your name.”
I saw Abe only once since then, at a memorial service for a mutual friend. He wore his dapper bowtie, but he walked with a shuffle and seemed frail.
Two years ago, for the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture asked me to nominate a “key text” in American Jewish life. I didn’t have to think about it very long. I nominated “There Is No News From Auschwitz,” Abe’s towering 1958 article about a visit to the extermination camp in Poland.
The article is probably the most frequently quoted piece in all the obituaries written this past week about Abe Rosenthal.
The Times ran it in full in the Week in Review section last Sunday, the day of his funeral.
And so there is no news to report from Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here.
I cannot think of a more fitting epitaph — for Abe or for the 6 million.