Three Orthodox Jews Work In New York’s Tabloid Press

Sunday morning, I call New York Post reporter Reuven Blau (Facebook).

(My series on Jewish journalism.)

Heshy Fried first talked to me about Reuven.

Luke: “Reuven, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

Reuven: “A veterinarian. I grew up in Denver. We had a lot of animals in our house.”

“I spent a lot of time volunteering at a clinic near my house. I took some science courses in college and I realized that it wasn’t what I was good at.”

Luke: “So where were you in the social pecking order in high school?”

Reuven: “I went to a really religious high school (Telshe Chicago). I went to a super right-wing yeshiva. There really wasn’t a social pecking order. I was an outsider because I always intended to go to college and had a different career and life outlook than most of the students. It was awkward.”

“I appreciated the tough hard-work ethic. It was something I wasn’t used to. We studied a lot. When I tell people about it, I compare it to an Ivy League high school. That was helpful. Everything else was awkward.

“I was introduced to a different world. It was an eye-opener.”

Luke: “What approach to Judaism were you raised with?”

Reuven: “More Modern Orthodox. My parents are European. They’re older. My dad’s a Holocaust survivor.”

“My brother went to Telshe Chicago. Once he was there, my parents felt it was a good opportunity to send me there as well.

“It was really tough. Looking back, do I think it was the right decision? I don’t know. It was a tough character builder. Leaving home at 13 was hard. It put me in a different world. When I moved to New York at 19, I met people who were leaving home for the first time.”

“I decided to just finish it [Telse] out and deal with it later in therapy. It [Chaim Berlin Yeshiva and Brooklyn College] were one of the programs that was out there. I didn’t want to be in my brother’s shadow.”

Luke: “How did you choose Brooklyn College?”

Reuven: “My brother went to Ner Israel. I felt like I wanted to stay in yeshiva. There aren’t many yeshivot where you can study in yeshiva and go to college.”

Luke: “Why did you want to continue with your yeshiva education?”

Reuven: “Coming from a serious right-wing school, it was implanted in your head that that was what you do. Looking back, I would’ve done things differently, maybe gone to Israel for a year and then to YU. I didn’t buy into the program at Telse but there was that influence.

“I had a really good time [at Chaim Berlin and Brooklyn College]. It worked out well for me. Coming from Telse, I didn’t look at Chaim Berlin as a very religious school.”

Luke: “How did the people at your yeshiva feel about you studying [English Literature] at a secular college?”

Reuven: “They made me go to a camp for a summer, which was torture.”

Luke: “Why was it tortuous?”

Reuven: “There was nothing happening there. I didn’t want to be there. It’s super laid back. To take advantage of their program, you have to be really dedicated. When I was in high school, we only had a month break each summer so I was looking forward to having a two-month break.”

“The rosh yeshiva knew I was writing, so he had me write up different divrei Torah for him and then he’d review it with me. It was intense.”

“They wanted to m’karev me (bring me closer). The rosh yeshiva would have me eat at his house on Shabbos at times. I was a little bit of a project. When I’d go to weddings, he’d pull me out of the crowd and sit me down and talk to me.”

“I took both of my studies very seriously. It’s a super challenge to go to both college and yeshiva at the same time. The vacation schedules don’t match. A lot of the students who went to Brooklyn College would never show up in the Bais Medrish and they were frustrated with that. It was really important to me while I was there, at least initially, to take both elements seriously.”

“Brooklyn College is a commuter college. It isn’t much of a social scene. I was socially stunted. I never dated in high school. I was suddenly in college with girls and it was a major eye-opener.”

Luke: “How old were you when you first went to a secular party where people were getting drunk and perhaps doing drugs and hooking up?”

Reuven: “I’m not a big party guy, probably older, probably early 20s. I’m much more of a home body.”

“I didn’t connect at all with any of the girls in college. A lot of the girls who were there were very Brooklyn and very Flatbush. It’s not a world I connect with. A lot of them knew each other from before. They had these groups. They’d come to class and they’d come in late and they’d be talking during class. I took my studies seriously. Frankly, there weren’t any Jewish girls in the literature courses. I wasn’t that social.”

Luke: “I haven’t spent much time in Brooklyn. What are the characteristics of people [Orthodox Jews] who grow up in Brooklyn and Flatbush that you don’t care for?”

Reuven: “There’s a cookie-cutter element where there’s not a lot of personality. They go to school. They’re taught one thing. They have a specific mentality about what they want to do and who they want to associate with. There seems to be a serious lack of character, of interests. They seem to like the same things, to dress the same way. There’s this bizarre attitude where if you talk to them socially or you are friendly to them in any way, they feel like you’re proposing to them and they’re very off-put. They’re offended almost when people reach out to them socially, which is a common trait and makes almost any conversation awkward. They’re looking for very specific things and they’re comfortable in a very specific world and anything that’s slightly askew from that, they’re confused by.

“I had one instance that is legendary. We took summer classes. At Brooklyn College, because it is so insular, a lot of the teachers we took, we’d have their old tests. Masorah is what it is called.

“There were a bunch of Jews in the class. They were a little bit friendly. It was super competitive. One of the Jewish girls had a lot of the old tests. We had some but we didn’t have all of them. We approached her casually, ‘Hey, can you help us out?’ And she totally jerked us around.

“We went all out. We wanted to make sure we got this to cover our asses and she blew us off. It turned out that there was another guy in the class who wasn’t Jewish at all who heard us talking and he totally bailed us out. He gave us the stuff that we had. I was really upset. I was really pissed off. I think it taught me a lesson. Frankly, I gave it to her afterwards. I’ve always been of the mind that you help each other out if you’re Jewish and religious. I was shocked. I was taken aback that somebody who was not Jewish would go above and beyond to help someone.”

Luke: “Does a yeshiva education make a person any less likely to cheat in college?”

Reuven: “Absolutely [more likely to cheat]. There’s a lot of pressure. I grew up with a lot of pressure. There’s this, ‘You know you have to succeed whatever it takes.’ If it takes cutting some corners, you’re going to do it. It’s expected that you are going to do well. You’ve got to answer the bell.”

Luke: “So a yeshiva education makes you more likely to cheat?”

Reuven: “I think so.”

In an essay published in his personal journal Ultimate Issues (Winter issue, 1986-1987), Dennis Prager wrote: “When I taught at Brooklyn College it was privately acknowledged by faculty members that students coming from Jewish schools were more likely to cheat on exams.”

Luke: “What do you think your yeshiva teachers would say if they were given evidence that this was true?”

Reuven: “The more religious you get, the more likely you are to cut corners. That’s the way they’re taught. The mentality is you do what you can, this is the secular world, the rules don’t count.”

Luke: “Do you think someone with a yeshiva education is more or less likely to be ethical in business?”

Reuven: “That’s a tough call.”

Luke: “How have you benefited and how have you been hurt by your yeshiva education?”

Reuven: “Socially, especially with girls, it really stunted me. I’ve been turned off a little bit to the religion because I’ve seen this [religious] side and I find a lot of BS.”

“Learning Gemara and going through a challenging education where you have to make the grade helps you because that’s what the real world is all about.”

Luke: “Do you think the Torah is a unitary work or do you think it is composed of different strands edited together over centuries?”

Reuven: “I have no idea. That’s for a theologian.”

Luke: “How do you approach Judaism today for yourself and for your own practice?”

Reuven: “To me it is about faith and what’s important is the basics — treating people with respect, honesty, are really important to me.”

“If you get a little bit older and you’re single, you’re not as much a part of the community any more. There’s this automatic phenomenon where the older you get, if you remain single, the less religious you are. That has affected me.”

Luke: “What’s it been like maintaining Torah observance while working in the field of journalism?”

Reuven: “It’s really hard. I was learning with a rabbi and he said, ‘Isn’t everything you write lashon hara?’ Technically speaking, a lot of it is. It is hard to explain [Jewishly] what you do. That’s difficult. People always say, ‘You shouldn’t report this stuff. It will cause anti-Semitism.’ I couldn’t disagree more. Unless people talk about things, nothing changes. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

“The big term that people throw around is moser. An informer. Someone once said, ‘You’re a moser. Technically speaking, we can kill you.'”

“I haven’t been punched. There was somebody who was very upset who shoved me in the back of the synagogue.”

Luke: “How many friends have you lost from just doing journalism?”

Reuven: “I haven’t lost any. I put a little strain on some of them.”

“The New York Post is a sensational tabloid. Extreme stuff. I try to sift through the tips that I get to highlight the extreme… When it lands in the New York Post, it’s not good. You don’t want to be getting calls from me and you don’t want to see your name in the paper.”

“There are three Orthodox Jews who are in the tabloid world. There’s Reuven Fenton and myself at the New York Post and Simone Weichselbaum at the New York Daily News. She got us speaking at this group called Chulent.”

Luke: “How do journalists who don’t work in the tabloid press regard those of you who do work in the tabloid press?”

Reuven: “That’s obvious. There’s total disdain for it.”

Luke: “It’s a really hard thing to pull off — being a frum Jew and working in the news media.”

Reuven: “The major challenge is Shabbos. It’s killer. With my two jobs, my deadline has always been on Friday. When I was first at the New York Post, I was on a story. I found out later that the editor was so frustrated that he sent a reporter to my house on Shabbos to talk to me. I was at shul.”

“I wear a yarmulke. I’m very proud of that. When I first started working, it was important to me to do that. It was important to me to show that Orthodox Jews can be normal.”

“I’m not as strong a writer as I am a reporter, so that is an ongoing challenge.”

Luke: “Did any Orthodox girls say anything really funny about your profession?”

Reuven: “Most religious girls are not that funny.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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