I’ve seen Ari Noonan‘s byline in various newspapers since I came to Los Angeles in 1994. I even shared a meal with him once at a Shabbos in the Pacific Jewish Center community in Venice (circa 2000). He had some colorful opinions about the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
I interview Ari by phone Wednesday evening. For the past seven years, he has been running a paper based in Culver City.
Ari grew up in a small town (Piqua in Ohio) in the Mid-West. He graduated from high school in 1957.
Ari is an Orthodox Jew. He’s on his third marriage and he has three kids.
Ari: “From the very beginning, about the second grade, I fell in love with baseball but because of my funny hands and my funny feet, it was evident to me that I was not going to be an athlete, so I decided [in fifth grade] that I was going to be a sportswriter.
“I had a hero who lived not far from me. He was the sports editor of the Dayton Daily News – Si Burick — from 1927 to the 1970s. He was moderate, informative, clear, even-tempered. All the qualities that I am not. I tried to pattern myself after him.”
Luke: “What do you mean by funny hands and funny feet?”
Ari: “I was born with deformities as five of the seven of us in my family were. It has to do with a defect in my mother’s history. I never have investigated. My parents were extremely private people who never wanted to probe into reasons beyond ‘This is God’s will.’ As a result, my curiosity, which should have been piqued, never really was.
“I had physical impediments to being an athlete, but thankfully, not any mental ones. That is why journalism was a logical option. It was the closest I could be to baseball without participating.”
Luke: “How many fingers and thumbs do you have?”
Ari: “I have a finger on each hand and then a stub at the end of each hand. My four siblings are so marked. My wife can give you the name of this [Ectrodactyly]. It has about five syllables.”
“All five of us who are so marked have varying configurations on a theme with more or fewer capabilities. Each of us, all seven of us, including our two sisters who are physically normal, were all psychologically affected by this to varying degrees. My late brother never recovered from the difficulties this presented. He was very quiet, as quiet as I am outgoing. I have another sister…for whom this has been a mountainous burden. I don’t think she’ll ever recover. The other five of us have dealt with it in different ways, but all aggressively and successfully.”
Luke: “Where are you in the birth order?”
Ari: “I was first. That was my choice. I’ve always wanted to be first. I always wanted to sit in the front row at school. I wanted to be the first one called on. I was always first to daven while I was growing up. I am first today at my synagogue. For a number of years during the week at Venice, I opened the door. Today for interviews, if it is a group interview, you can bet I’ll be the first or second there. Punctuality is an important value to me. Never showing up too early. That’s as unforgivable as showing up very tardily.”
Luke: “How did you deal with your difficulty?”
Ari: “My parents took the lead there. We grew up in a small town in the Middle West. We were always shielded. We were told how normal and natural we were. As a sophomore and a junior in high school, when I would ask girls out and they would say they needed to stay home and wash their hair because an aunt was visiting in a couple of weeks, I swallowed it.
“I would never confide in anyone. If my mom asked if I was going out, I’d say no, she was busy. I was going by myself. It never occurred to me that my hands and feet would be the reason.”
“I was bullied in high school even though I was the tallest kid in my class. Maybe that should have turned on a light for me. Not until I was in college and I had a blind date and my counselor said, ‘Don’t you think you should tell her about your hands?’ I said, yeah, sure.
“And so I called and very awkwardly and blushingly tried to explain my hands, and she said, oh, that’s no problem except that I can’t make it when we were supposed to go out but if you call me back sometime, maybe we can go out.
“Once again, that didn’t ring a bell for me. I have to be struck over the head.
“I’m persistent. I called her several weeks later and we went out. And when I say ‘we’, I mean she and I went out with her parents in case I turned out to be a monster. The four of us had a lovely evening. I think the movie we saw was Pal Joey.
“Then the four of us decided not to date any longer.”
“I might’ve had an acceptable social life except that I was dating two girls and came home on vacation and I wrote to both of them but put the wrong letter into the wrong envelope.”
“I’m an attention freak. I enjoy it when people look at me. My brother never did.”
“Religion has always been important to me. I was the good child. I prayed daily.”
“From the age of 20 until my late 30s, religion was a non-issue for me. I was away from Judaism altogether.”
“I didn’t become Orthodox until coming to Venice in 1990 at the invitation of Michael Medved. I was going through a horrendous divorce. It closed the day before Yom Kippur.”
“I was at a desperate juncture. I was going through a wretched divorce that lingers to today. We had three children, eight, six and infant. Today the two younger boys will have nothing to do with me. My youngest son, I’ve not seen in almost nine years. My middle son, I’ve not seen in three-and-a-half years. My oldest son is my pal. We have breakfast every Sunday.”
“I fell in love with PJC immediately in October of 1990 and didn’t leave until 1999, when work had become thin and I moved across country to Baltimore to become the managing editor of a short-lived urban daily. I returned here six months later. A year and a half after that, I met the girl who would become my wife. I met her through Rabbi Steven Jacobs.”
Luke: “Do you turn off your journalistic skepticism when you study Torah?”
Ari: “I turn off my skepticism. I have no doubt that everything we are told [by the Jewish tradition] either happened or has been related to us for a specific, deep or unknowable reason.”
Luke: “Why do you have this belief?”
Ari: “Because I’m a dreamer and an optimist. When it comes to yiddishkeit, that is the untouchable pillar of my life. It has seen me through what have felt to me like the worst of times and surely other people have gone through much more.”
Ari Noonan wrote for the Jewish Journal from 1986 to 1990 and again in 1997.
Luke: “What were your biggest oys in covering Jewish life [for a decade]?”
Ari: “Working for the Jewish Journal because it was wheel-spinning, an utter lack of responsibility and mature service to the community. The newspaper went off the rails shortly after it opened and it has regarded the religious community as folly and the implacable foe ever since. The leadership has never been strong. Yiddishkeit has been incidental to all the leaders I have known. I think it has been a 25-year disappointment for the community. There are few quality Jewish newspapers in the country and the Jewish Journal is not in the top 100.”
Ari: “Misguided mission. The first editor [Gene Lichtenstein] was Hollywood gaga. He decided that Jewish Hollywood would be his principal vehicle. When he was fired, it wasn’t called that but it sure smelled like it, he was succeeded by Rob Eshman. I have written several times what a shanda Eshman is for the community and that I wish that he would convert out. I would help him if he wanted. He’s a creature of the political left. That is his religion. He has boasted about breaking Shabbos. That’s fine. That’s his business, except that as the face of the Jewish Journal, the largest circulation Jewish newspaper west of New York, he should present a more modest, religiously-sensitive image.
“He doesn’t care. He’s a zero as a journalist. He is the most immature journalist I know of in Los Angeles.”
Ari: “Because he doesn’t understand the mission of an ethnic newspaper and he writes in the style of a five-year-old who has just visited his favorite birthday party. He boasts regularly about celebrities he meets and is much more interest in glitz than content.”
Luke: “How often do you read him?”
Ari: “Every week.”
Luke: “If you were given complete control of the Jewish Journal, what would you do? Who would you fire?”
Ari: “I would start with the news staff, except David Suissa.”
“By a hundred miles, The Jewish Week is the finest non-Orthodox Jewish newspaper on the continent. The writing is superb. Many of the reporters and op-ed writers have been there since Gary came to New York.”
Luke: “What should be the mission of a Jewish newspaper?”
Ari: “To 50% reflect the rhythms of the community and 50% to lead.”
Luke: “In what direction should it be leading people? To greater religiosity?”
Ari: “Probably. To be a moral role model for the community.”
“The Jewish Journal treats Orthodoxy as a freak, as a pool toy to be played with and observed with a giggle.”
Luke: “Is there anything the Jewish Journal does right?”
Ari: “They may report the obits accurately, but serious journalism? It has been an incapable task for these years.”
“I was fired [from the Jewish Journal] in late summer 1990. That supposedly was related to my divorce. We’ll let that lie right there because I was married to a woman from a prominent community family. That was written at the time that my firing was linked to the divorce. It was best for both of us because neither of us could breathe freely as long as I was there and the newspaper and I were better after I left. My stomach was torture the entire time I was there. Beginning at noon on Shabbos, my stomach would start churning at the thought of returning to my desk Monday morning.”
Ari came back to the Jewish Journal briefly in 1997.
When Ari moved to the Los Angeles Jewish Times in 1997, “I was just going from one type of scoundrel to another because the editor was an extremely difficult person.”
Luke: “Did you get paid?”
Ari: “Sometimes. With the Jewish Journal, there never was a question. With the Jewish Times, getting paid was easy, cashing the check was a weekly challenge. I still have editors who owe me thousands of dollars.”
Luke: “Why did your stomach churn at the Jewish Journal?”
Ari: “Because the editor and I never agreed on his form of editing. He wanted completely different emphases. It was like being married for 20 years to an ugly woman.”
Luke: “What were the different emphases?”
Ari: “That’s too specific at this stage. I’d have to think about it.”