On leaving my Times column: an exclusive interview

June 14 • Permalink

Yesterday, I told my editor at The New York Times that I was stepping down as the monthly “Beliefs” columnist. On hearing the news, I requested an interview with myself, and I agreed. Below is my exclusive interview with myself.


Why are you leaving?

In 1996, during my senior year in college, I wrote a letter to Gustav Niebuhr, then the religion beat reporter for the Times, to ask how I could be him someday. He wrote back, inviting me to his office to talk. A couple weeks later, after pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper, I took the train into New York, went to the old Times HQ on 43rd Street, and met Niebuhr. He gave me an advice-rich half hour of his time. He told me that reporters with good story ideas were rarer, and thus more valuable, than reporters who could only write good prose. Our meeting took place in the cafeteria, and two other guys at the next table were playing speed chess. I had been a pretty competitive chess player in junior high, and I figured that if I ever got good enough at finding story ideas, I would get a job at the Times and play chess every day with my colleagues. When I finally got a gig at the Times—albeit not Niebuhr’s beat job, but the biweekly religion columnist job—I discovered there was no chess. Key parties, maybe, but no chess.

Key parties?

Well, okay, no key parties. Not anymore. The staff of the Automobiles section was in charge of the key parties, and when the Times closed down Auto, nobody really picked up the ball and ran with it.

Really?

Okay, not really.

Is anything you said true?

Yes. Gus Niebuhr really did meet with me, he really did give me great advice, and there really was chess.

You still haven’t told us why you really left.

Oh, right. Because after more than six years of total bliss in this part-time job, to which I had always aspired—with great editors, engaged readers, and an expense policy that let me really go to places to do a good job—I am increasingly interested in my longer pieces. I’ve written three books, and I do a lot of magazine work, and I want to focus more on that stuff. The Beliefs column is every four weeks now, and although that doesn’t sound like so often, I report it pretty heavily, so it stops me for a few days every four weeks, which makes it hard to build momentum on other projects. Also, I’m now hosting a weekly podcast, Unorthodox, on Slate’s podcast channel, and that takes up a full day every week.

Is that code for, “You’re being fired.”

Yes.

Really?

Okay, no. In fact, although the frequency of my and Sam Freedman’s religion columns has been cut back from biweekly to every four weeks each, the editors have protected the columns from the total guillotining that befell the chess and bridge columns. As far as I know, my future at the Times was secure.

So you’re firing them?

I’m not firing them, not exactly. Let’s just say I am transitioning them out. I’m helping them move on to new challenges and opportunities.

So what, specifically, will you do next?

I have magazine stories in progress for the Times Magazine, GQ, and a couple other places. I’m an editor at large for Tablet, which covers Jewish life and has the most gorgeous new print magazine you have seen. I have the podcast, which has been growing rapidly—we’re also now being asked to do live shows of it, which has been amazing. I think we’re doing something very unusual: a religion podcast that is informative but totally irreverent, even self-lacerating. I might work on a documentary with my brother Dan, who writes books and makes movies. I’ll visit my brother Jonathan, who is a student, community activist, and new dad in St. Paul, and my sister, Rachel, who is moving to Chicago next week with her domestic partner (but not her partnered domestic) and their dog. My kids and my dogs will get more of my time—they are always like, “Feed me! Love me!” My wife’s always like, “Who’s that hanging up the phone every time I answer?” I direct the Yale Journalism Initiative, which has been endowed by Steven Brill and Bob Woodward to mentor the amazing student journalists we have there. I will keep up my public speaking schedule. I have a couple book ideas. I have started writing a book called How to Be a Jew (seriously), which takes the form of a letter to my youngest daughter. Another book idea involves dressing like a real dandy for a year and writing about how the world is different when you wear bow ties and bespoke suits. Would you buy that book?

Probably not.

Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. But at least I could write off my tailoring bill.

It sounds as if you have big plans for the second half of your life.

I see it as the second third of my life, thank you very much. I am 41, but my people live long lives.

Your people?

Jews. More specifically, Jews with good dental health.

You have good dental health?

Unbelievably good. No cavities, no gum problems. When I go to the dentist, my hygienist calls all the other hygienists into the room: “Hey, you’ve got to see this!”

I’ve heard there’s a biopic in the works. Who’s in talks to play you?

They are trying to get Daniel Radcliffe, but if he’s tied up, Mark Duplass would be good. Andy Samberg wanted the role, but I felt he wouldn’t bring the necessary gravity to certain scenes.

You’re alluding to the work you’ve done on clergy sexual abuse?

Oh, we’re being serious now?

Yeah, let’s.

Okay. Yes, as the wonderfully named (suspiciously so) writer Jeet Heer once noted, I seem to have a specialty in men of the cloth behaving very badly. That’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, because it’s brought great abuses to light, but also some of the most painful for me. Talking to the victims of the Zen priest Eido Shimano, or the ex-rabbi Marc Gafni, who amazingly has found a champion in Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, was very painful. My pain was nothing as compared to the pain of these women—not even close—but they are hard stories to report, and I won’t miss them.

What will you miss?

The eccentrics I got to write about. Like the Orthodox Jewish guy who travels the country to figure out what Starbucks products are kosher, or the celibate conservative Catholic lesbian, or the guys who ran Christwire, a website satirizing fundamentalist Christianity, whose 15-point checklist to help you figure out “Is My Husband Gay?” was taken seriously by all sorts of people.

But you can keep writing about them for other venues?

Yes. But possible subjects will be less likely to return my phone calls. When you say you are calling from the Times, everyone returns your calls. That is awesome. I’ll miss that. The good news is that I’ll live forever on Google as a Times writer, so probably people will keep returning my calls. Thanks, Sergey and Larry.

What else will you miss?

The prestige. Even people who say they hate the Times kind of revere it.

You’re 41 now, so you have accumulated a certain amount of wisdom. Do you want to share any?

Sure, for three dollars a word.

That’s your new rate?

Yes. Or as I put it, “.6(Gladwell).”

Do you really charge that much?

Do you pay that much?

No.

Okay, then let’s see what we can work out.

Meanwhile, how about some of that wisdom?

Alright, you win. Here goes: Being mean isn’t okay just because it’s on Twitter. If you don’t use television to make parenting easier, you’re a fool. Don’t call yourself “Dr.” unless you are a real doctor, the kind with an M.D. There is no surer sign of douchebaggery than the monogrammed shirt. If you’re an old man, don’t dye your hair Sheldon Adelson orange; if you’re an old woman, don’t tint your hair purple. Mentor young people in your profession. Show up on time. If you’re a writer, file the piece a day early and fifty words short. Journaling is not practice for writing. Vaccinate. Floss. Get your dog from the shelter or rescue.

What about American religion? You are a preeminent observer of the scene, and one with good teeth, no less. What can you tell us?

You know that generalizations can get me in trouble, right?

Now that the Times can’t fire you, what do you have to lose?

Good point. Here goes: From what I can tell, Scientology is dying. The Christian right was always more a media construct than a reality. Mormons really are nicer, and they take care of their own, and often others, but their lack of irony and sarcasm and edge is a problem for Mormon artists (as I have written). Jews are my people, my family, and I love them best, but if we want Judaism to survive outside the Orthodox world, then non-Orthodox Jews have to have more children, live closer together (Judaism is a home-based, and by extension neighborhood-based, religion; suburbia will murder us all), and allow for real diversities of opinion about Zionism. Pope Francis matters hardly at all; a popular pope will not save Catholicism in the West; Catholics have to find a reason to reengage with parish life. Open, avowed atheists are the most oppressed minority in America, the last group that will be able to elect one of their own as president. People who say they are pacifists are some of the most violent people I know.

Any good religion jokes to share?

Just one: How do you drive a Unitarian family from your neighborhood? Burn a giant question mark on their lawn.

Are you religious?

I love ritual and I love community and I love tradition, so that makes me a good candidate for being religious. I love being Jewish. In terms of belief … I go in and out. I definitely feel that the Jews are chosen—if not by God, then by history. But chosen for what, I am not sure. I’m glad to have been born to a religion in which belief is just one of the four legs of the tripod.

What’s in our future?

Liberal versions of Islam and Mormonism. Just as Jews have Reform Judaism, and Catholics have those parishes where everyone kinda sorta just knows the priest is a pro–birth control lefty, Mormons will develop liberal communities of culturally Mormon but theologically flexible members, who will operate on a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell model, and Muslims will have prog mosques that are gender-egal and, for lack of a better word, very Americanized.

How good was your chess game?

Okay, not that good. I think my rating got up to 1600 or so.

What are you reading these days?

Tim Kreider, Tom Perrotta, Jessica Anya Blau, Jonathan Tropper. I am psyched for Min Jin Lee’s second novel. Always waiting for the next Janet Malcolm or Joan Acocella article. I get my best fiction suggestions from my wife, who reads a lot more than I do (she hosts a podcast about books). I’ll always be reading my former colleagues Laurie Goodstein and Sam Freedman, who write great stuff on religion. And the younger comers on the God beat: Michael Schulson, Shira Telushkin, Emma Green, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Liz Bruenig, Ilana Strauss. Jack Hitt. And Lindy West and Katha Pollitt and Gail Collins and Matt Taibbi, because they are funny.

Do you want suggestions?

Not if they involve Elena Ferrante. I tried, I really did. Just couldn’t get into it.

You sound like a happy guy.

Yeah, it’s been a great first third of my life. The main thing is that I have a great family: a wonderful wife, two great dogs, an antisocial cat, and as many daughters as Rush Limbaugh’s had wives.

Can we do this again when you’re 82 and again when you’re 123?

It’s a deal. And no worries about the three dollars a word—this is so good for my brand, I’m willing to give you free content.

I look a little bit different now.

June 8 • Permalink

Welcome to the new website! Will Etling is a superb designer, and I’m elated by the fine work he’s done to make web-sense of my big schmoosh-up of a career. I’ll be posting upcoming news and events in this space. The main projects for the summer are a little writing, a lot of podcasting, and a whole lot of swimming with my daughters.