Meet Benyamin Cohen: newshound, chicken owner and host of our new morning newsletter
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When Benyamin Cohen was 5 or 6 years old, he started doing the nightly news for his family. He was the fifth of six kids in an Orthodox family in Atlanta. Dad was a rabbi and principal of the Yeshiva High School, where Mom taught math. Young Benyamin would set up a fake desk next to the dinner table, bring his pad and pen, and report on world events he’d seen in the newspaper, new movies coming out, community gossip.
“I’ve always wanted to let people know the news. Since I was a kid, that has been a driving force,” he explained. “I like to be the social butterfly who can say, ‘did you hear about this?’ I get a thrill, I get an actual high when I tell people something they didn’t know, when I tell people a piece of news. ‘Did you hear?’ We have a family WhatsApp group and to this day, 40 years later, I’m still the one telling the family, sending texts at 11 o’clock at night, ‘did you guys hear?’”
Starting Monday, Benyamin will be bringing this drive and his omnivorous news appetite to you, our readers. He’s the host of our new morning newsletter, Forwarding the News, a daily dose of analysis and insights about what’s driving the American Jewish conversation. Instead of simply sending you headlines and links to Forward articles, he’ll explain what’s going on and why it matters, bringing a Jewish lens to the broadest swath of stories about our diverse communities.
Benyamin, who started as the Forward’s News Director in January, has been emailing such a morning note to our team for months, and we decided it’s just too valuable to keep to ourselves. I chatted with him over Zoom this week from his home-office in Morgantown, West Virginia (more on that later), about how this role fits perfectly into a life devoted to Jewish journalism.
“From the very beginning, I never had to go to a guidance counselor, a career counselor, to figure out what I wanted to do or what I was good at,” he told me. “And so I feel blessed that I’m given a platform to be able to do this with this newsletter at this level.”
“We live in such a fractured news environment, and what we’ve been doing at the Forward for more than a century is crystallizing and curating the news for people,” he continued. “You know, it used to be in the Lower East Side, when the Forward came out each day, people would find out what they needed to know. And now we’re doing it in a 21st century way, on a new platform. But in a certain sense, in many senses, it’s not new.”
Here are other highlights from our conversation:
So when you were doing the nightly news as a kid, what were your sources?
Probably the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta Jewish Times. The Southern Israelite was the original name, and then later, they did a rebrand to the Atlanta Jewish Times. But when I was a kid, it was Southern Israelite. And the people who didn’t like the paper called it the “Southern Ishmaelite.”
**You later worked for Atlanta Jewish Times…and founded a pop-culture webzine called Jewsweek, and edited both American Jewish Life Magazine and a website about Israeli culture called From the Grapevine, and wrote a book, and hosted a podcast….how did all that grow out of the Cohen Family Nightly News? Did you do journalism in high school? **
I went to a small private Jewish high school, and they had a newspaper that came out once every three months. I said, why don’t we just publish a newspaper every Friday? Since my dad was the principal, he was like, OK, do whatever you want. Though he said, there’s not enough news — I mean, literally, there were like 75 kids — so what are you going to report on? I said, don’t worry, I’ll find plenty to report on. And I did the reporting as if I was writing for The New York Times.
So at the dinner table my dad would tell us something like, ‘Oh, we’re thinking of hiring this rabbi as a teacher next year.’ And I would do a big exposé, “Exclusive! Rabbi from Baltimore might be teaching here next year!” I turned what would be a pedantic story into Watergate. There was one time a board member came over to our house to have a private conversation with my dad and as he was leaving, I took a picture of him in the driveway, like a tabloid photo of him, and I posted that across the front page.
One of my close friends was student council president, Joey Wilson, and we treated him in the newspaper like he was President of the United States. Anytime there was any article on anything, I would call him up for a quote. And it got to be a running joke. It could be about a new art project that the art class is doing, I’d get a quote from him to make it seem important. “Oh, I think this project is great. It’s bringing unity to the school,” or whatever.
What was it called?
The Yeshiva Palette. “Painting you a picture of yeshiva life” was the slogan. This is way before the days of desktop publishing. We would cut it out and glue it onto paper, we’d work on it all Thursday night, bring it to Kinko’s at 5 a.m. and we’d hand it out when people arrived at school Friday morning.
“Forwarding the News” won’t be 20 pages long, though, right? We won’t be quoting Joey Wilson?
That’s where curation comes into play. Listen, I only have people’s attention for a finite amount of time. I could sit here for three hours and tell you the hundreds of stories that are going on, but that doesn’t accomplish anything, doesn’t help the reader.
What do I feel are the most important things for you to know, the breadth of topics. It’s not just, here’s the latest on the Middle East conflict, here’s the latest with AIPAC. I like to surprise and delight readers. So you’re going to see in this newsletter a mix of hard news and soft news and features and off the beaten path and some bizarre stories. I relish being able to surprise people with news.
I’ve always enjoyed trying to find Jewish angles on stories that people don’t necessarily think about. I remember distinctly when they cloned Dolly the Sheep back in 1996 that I actually made on my little computer at home a fake Jewish magazine cover, and I was thinking: If I ran a Jewish magazine I would do a whole issue about what do Jewish ethicists say about cloning sheep.
Speaking of sheep, you live on a farm of sorts, in Morgantown, having moved from Atlanta in 2012 because your wife, Elizabeth, teaches media studies at West Virginia University. You’ve got 17 chickens, all named for NPR hosts, with their own (well, they share it with your two pugs, Fergus and Spike). Who is the most prolific?
Terry Gross. Terry Gross was our first layer, and she is probably the most prolific. She’s also the most ornery. Melissa Block passed away recently, but she was the sweetest, she was the Golden Retriever of the chickens, she liked to sit on human’s laps. The real Melissa Block follows us on Instagram and keeps asking when Melissa 2.0 will be joining the flock. Yuki Noguchi is probably the best-looking chicken we have. Kai Ryssdal is very cocky. Mara Liasson is a lot to handle, I’ll tell you that.
The beauty of modern-day life is that I can live in the mountains of West Virginia, and help my neighbor milk her cows in the morning, and know all the news that’s happening around the world.
I grew up in the South, and I used to go to summer camp in New York, and I was always the odd man out. So one of the passions I have is highlighting smaller Jewish communities, communities that are not what people typically think of as Jewish communities. Obviously, as someone who lives as a Jew in Appalachia, I’m living this on a day-to-day basis.
One of my favorite stories we did in the Forward recently is about small Jewish communities like Fargo, N.D., raising money to build a mikveh. These are stories that are unlikely to make the front pages of other newspapers. The Forward is a national publication, so we get to cover so many topics in so many places. And that, to me, is just a great playground to spend time in.
Tell us about your workspace — the World Headquarters of Forwarding the News. I can see a couple of vintage typewriters — one belonged to your wife’s grandfather, who was a journalist for The Gainesville Sun. And there are, what, five different headphones? Plus you work with two monitors, and have about 50 Google alerts and 20-plus news sites bookmarked?
I’m all about life hacks and whatever I can do to make life run smoother. I discovered that when I got two monitors, I was able to be twice as productive. The headphones behind me each serve a different purpose. Most people have a headphone and each time they hook it up to a different device they have to spend 10 seconds connecting it, so I just bought five different ones so I don’t have to worry about that.
I like to call myself a Renaissance Man in that I know a little about a lot of different things. So I have some “Back to the Future” posters here, and I have animal art, and I have Einstein art, and there’s a map of Morgantown.
You are indeed interested in everything. What about when you go on vacation? Do you still check 20 news sites every day?
My wife doesn’t like the fact that I really can’t turn off my newshound-ness, I’m always scrolling and checking everything. I have a big amount of FOMO — Fear of Missing Out. One of the reasons I did not like sleep-away camp as a kid was because I was mad that I was missing all the stuff that was going on in my hometown. You know, I remember saying to someone, they asked, ‘Why don’t you like summer camp?’ and I said, ‘Because what if Rabbi Estreicher has a baby and I’m gonna miss the bris?”
You don’t miss much! You’re going to have to get a pretty early start to get this newsletter out by 8 a.m. or so. Are you a morning person?
So I grew up in a large family, one of six kids, and the only quiet time I ever had was early in the morning before everybody woke up. So in high school, I would wake up at 5 in the morning, I was like an old altakaker. I’d walk to the edge of the driveway and grab the newspaper. And I would sit and have breakfast, by myself, in the peace and quiet at 5 in the morning, reading the newspaper. And, to me, that was the favorite time of the day.
And you still do that, right? Get up at 5 or 6 and read the news? What do you have for breakfast?
I have coffee in my pajamas and do the news. And then I exercise and shower and have coffee and a protein bar as a reward for all that.
And you know, this is something I’ve been doing for many years, not just in the professional sense, but in a personal sense, is just scanning the news every day, and sharing it with friends, sharing it with family. And now getting to share it with all the Forward readers.
Your Weekend Reads
Each week, our news director, Benyamin Cohen, compiles some of our best stories for you to savor over Shabbat and Sunday. You can download and print a free PDF of them by clicking here, or browse them via the links below.