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Csillag: Looking back at my years with The CJN

Ron Csillag

The folding of The CJN affords one time for sadness but also to reflect. I’m thinking of a number between one and 50.

In the Bible, the most evocative number seems to be 40. It’s also that many years ago I started scribbling for a living, and so, between that and the demise of The CJN, it feels like an appropriate time to stop.

As people of a certain age are wont to say, where did the time go? At retirement, it seems like I’m still just getting warmed up.

In late June, 1980, armed with a degree in history and journalism and all of four weeks’ experience at a homeowners magazine that folded before even the first issue was published, I was hired as one of two reporters at The Suburban, a well-known weekly that circulates in and around the suburbs of Montreal. It was a meat grinder: I covered four local municipalities, wrote a weekly film review, covered the Jewish community and its then grand fundraisers, and penned features and personality profiles – all on an electric typewriter. Scissors and tape were used for edits. Through producing sheer volume, I think I got better, or, at least faster.

With a job in local television news intervening, I moved to Toronto in the fall of 1984 and began freelancing for The CJN. My first story was about a visiting German rabbi who taught about the Holocaust in the land where it was hatched. He said the subject embarrassed many Germans, the way a discussion on sex might.

Hired as a full-time reporter, I stayed until late 1986, when I became the editor of a glossy magazine geared toward the Jewish wealthy, a job that actually caused me pain. On the side, I did a lot of public relations in the Jewish community, and quickly realized that my proper place was on the other side of the fence; the one being pitched stories, not the pitcher. I returned to The CJN in 1990 and stayed until 2006.

I left for a number of reasons, quibbles about the paper’s editorial policies among them. I was down to three days a week, then two, then none, but found a freelance market at Toronto’s dailies. I had already published several articles in the Toronto Star, and proceeded to write feature-length stories for it, the Globe and Mail, and the new kid on the block, the National Post. For the next decade – not to toot my own horn, but what the heck – I was the only journalist I knew of to write regularly for those three dailies (I’d had one CJN article reprinted in the Toronto Sun, but it just didn’t feel right). There was weekend work at the CBC, and through some American clients, I had several stories published in the Washington Post.

A new editor at a resurrected CJN came along just as freelance gigs dried up, and I was hired a third time, feeling a bit like three-time champ Muhammad Ali (OK, in my dreams).

In some ways, it’s been a slog, as writing and reporting to deadlines can be, but it’s also been a world-class education. It sounds clichéd, but in no other job can one meet and speak to prime ministers, premiers, mayors, captains of industry, authors, scientists, scholars, artists, and so-called influencers.

I’ve interviewed all but one Canadian prime ministers since Pierre Trudeau (I once danced the hora with him, but we didn’t speak). Joe Clark freely admitted to me that his doomed election promise in 1979 to move Canada’s Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem had been a young leader’s mistake. Brian Mulroney turned on his smooth Irish charm whenever I called for comment or input. Kim Campbell cheerfully told me that she had co-written a biblically-themed musical called Noah’s Arc. Jean Chretien was relaxed and in good humour – until the subject of Israel was raised. He then appeared to don a hair shirt. Paul Martin pledged stronger support for Israel at the United Nations, and delivered. Stephen Harper was robotic but animated and sincere when Israel came up. Justin Trudeau sounded like he memorized a script when it came to Canada’s Middle East policy. All were gracious and patient.

In Ontario, an approachable premier was the staunch Conservative Mike Harris, who genuinely had a soft spot for the Jewish community. Ditto for Bob Rae, who, I’m certain, read The CJN cover to cover. Liberals David Peterson and Dalton McGuinty never granted us interviews, believing, cynically but perhaps correctly, that they did not need to court Jewish voters. By the time I got to Kathleen Wynne, who was genial but steely, the question of public funding for Jewish day schools was long off the table.

Among Israeli leaders, I met former president Yitzhak Navon twice, once in Israel and once in Toronto, where I rose to introduce myself at a luncheon in his honour, and watched on my descent as the end of my tie sank straight into my cup of coffee. Getting interviews with Israeli prime ministers, current and former, was trickier. I sat with Benjamin Netanyahu for over an hour in New York when he was Israel’s ambassador to the UN, and he shared a novel-worthy story of how Israel led the way in prying open the UN’s Nazi-era war crimes files.

At a Montreal press conference, I posed a question to the notoriously prickly Yitzhak Rabin. He wasn’t crazy about it. Shimon Peres was tired and pale when we talked in Toronto, but was eloquent. Alone with Ariel Sharon in the basement of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue, I found the tough former general to be soft-spoken and pensive, but pessimistic. Ehud Barak, long out of office, was relaxed, jovial and optimistic.

Sprinkled among these have been dozens of Israeli politicians, scientists, journalists, professors, artists, peacemakers, and generals, both hawks and doves. After I turned off my recorder, one general picked my brain about Arab-Israeli peace. I was flattered but later hoped he disregarded everything I’d said. He no doubt did.

My first editor, the venerable Maurice Lucow, used to liken The CJN to a fiddler who must play on many roofs at once. Readers have often been less whimsical. I have been called: A “pathetic loser,” singularly ignorant, totally ignorant, a “journalist” (quotation marks theirs), “a poor excuse for a human being,” a “vile person,” a “total disgrace to Jewry,” a sucker, a hypocrite, a Holocaust revisionist, a self-hating Jew, and, according to a local member of Parliament, “contextually-challenged (and) rather snide.” One email writer, who boldly signed his name, warned: “I will get my revenge, consider this a threat.” (He later took it back.) While covering the trial of a former Jewish day school teacher convicted of sex offences, a very large relative of the accused got in my face and hissed, “You better watch yourself.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that I should be ashamed of myself, or that we should not air our dirty linen in public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most noxious criticisms have come from the political extremes. Snowflakes to the left and right of me…

Those of us who remember lifting a phone or actually putting pen to paper and stamp to envelope will agree that nothing confers chutzpah like the Internet, especially when anonymity is guaranteed.

Most of the negative reaction was uncalled for, but not all, for I have made far too many errors. Some were chalked up to mere sloppiness: A misspelled name or wrong date. Others were the result of hurry, poor reading, and bad math skills. Too many were the fault of recklessness and hubris. Each one felt like a gut punch.

I’ve also been labeled both right-wing and left-wing. I find the whole issue of bias fascinating; CJN readers whip it from their holsters like veteran gunslingers, especially when it comes to the legacy media, which are almost reflexively denounced as anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. Here’s my take: 1) Readers brought more personal bias to the table than the paper could provide (except for columnists, who were supposed to be biased – a distinction lost on many) and 2) a lot of Jewish media consumers aren’t interested in true neutrality when it comes to reporting on Israel, and may not recognize it as such anyway. They want pro-Israel boosterism. They want bias.

I was fortunate to cover the major stories of their day: Israel-Palestinian peace talks in Ottawa, where the Palestinian side walked out in high dudgeon, only to later return; the trials of neo-Nazi hatemongers and of a leader of a Jewish women’s group whose shenanigans shocked and embarrassed the community; a historic gathering of Holocaust survivors; aggressive efforts to convert Jews by missionaries (who were livid that I attended one of their meetings unannounced); friction and friendship between Canada and Israel; and, going back decades, the struggles to free Ethiopian and Soviet Jewry. One of the most joyous parties I attended was at the Toronto home of the cousins of Natan Sharansky the day he was released from captivity. One of the saddest things I saw was a weary mother coaxing one more spoonful of mush into her baby’s mouth at a refugee centre for Jews in the Ethiopian town of Gondar.

I’ve travelled the world (not on The CJN’s dime) but as a CJN reporter, I always managed to find a Jewish angle to every trip, whether it was visiting the tranquil synagogue in frenzied Yangon, Myanmar; having the leader of a moribund Jewish community in Romania serenade me with a bittersweet rendition of Que Sera Sera; or listening tightlipped to a cheerful, ruddy-faced denizen of the Bavarian town of Dachau say no one knew what was happening in the nearby camp of the same name.

I’m often asked about a favourite interview, and the worst one. The latter is easy: A celebrity American rabbi did not appreciate my questions. “I was warned not to talk to you!” he bellowed on the phone, and insisted his PR man join the remainder of the call. Who warned him, I wondered?

There have been many good interviews, but I won’t soon forget one with “Rachel.” She was a homeless Jewish woman whose eyes had a faraway look but darted about nevertheless. Her legs were splotched with large purple sores and she hugged her threadbare coat close to herself. “Shabbat shalom,” she wished me as we parted ways.

Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler intimidated me at first. Both were affable. Richler, fresh off his infamous New Yorker article on xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Quebec, was brusque at first but warmed up after a few whisky-and-distilled-waters at the Red Lion pub on Jarvis St. His evisceration of the Jewish community’s “pusillanimous” leadership was refreshing to my conditioned ears.

Larry King was a great interview because he knows answers as well as questions. Comedians Jackie Mason and Yakov Smirnoff alternated from deadly serious to as funny as their stage personas. Comic actor Buddy Hackett was rude and supercilious. Crooner Eddie Fischer sounded doleful. Director David Cronenberg, then just starting his career, shot his PR woman death stares when I, a wet-behind-the-ears kid from a weekly, showed up to interview him. Chess champ Gary Kasparov’s gaze bore through my skull.

I have assiduously avoided being photographed with my subjects. I have met too many reporters who fawn over and crave pictures with their idols. Nothing telegraphs amateurism more than these giddy fanboys and girls. I succumbed only once, when I could not resist being snapped shaking hands with Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta at a JCC sports dinner.

Regrets: The CJN was not aggressive enough in reporting the takeover of the Canadian Jewish Congress and other groups by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. For years, another no-go area for the paper was exploring the charitable status of organizations in Canada that financed activities in Israel’s post-1967 territories. For too long, the paper functioned as a timid house organ meant to soothe rather than inform.

Our most recent iteration was not the thick weekly feasts of the 1980s. I think it was better: Leaner meant less fluff, tighter writing, and an overall content that was punchy, attractive, relevant, and, yes, sometimes even controversial. Still, I got into too many rhubarbs with people who said they hated the paper because it was too (insert gripe here). “You’re free not to read it,” I would suggest. “I don’t,” they would snap, “and I haven’t for years.” My reply, delivered wearily, was always, “then how do you know it’s so (refer to earlier gripe here)?

Canada’s Jewish community is a model of caring, self-support and snappy organization – its response to the COVID-19 crisis is a shining example. If we don’t do it for ourselves, no one will. But I can sum up in one sentence the community’s greatest shame, and it isn’t variations in support for Israel or intermarriage or high tuition fees at day schools. It’s that one in four Holocaust survivors lives in poverty, at least in Toronto. That’s a disgrace.

And what has proven tiring is the endless bickering and turf wars between Jewish advocacy organizations. It was, and continues to be, better suited to a sandbox, and only feeds egos.

Instead of writing a novel in retirement, I plan on reading the classic books I’ve neglected, and hope to get through 100 of the greatest ones. Recommendations are welcome.

It’s an opportune time to go. It’s true that print is dying, but more dangerously, so is truth. Increasingly, it seems the good guys are losing that battle.

Almost exactly seven years ago, The CJN announced it was ceasing publication. The reaction among readers was heartening. It resembled an uprising, community leaders heeded the call, and the paper roared back. In my gut, I have the feeling and hope that something similar will happen. Canada’s Jewish community is the fourth largest in the world and could soon surpass the one in France to become the third largest. It deserves a voice.