Moment Anniversary | A Mirror of Jewish American History

Moment’s archives reflect what has troubled, concerned, excited and inspired American Jews from 1975 to the present.
By | Jun 23, 2020

In 1910 in Warsaw, Poland writer Zvi Prylucki founded Der Moment, a popular independent Yiddish daily read by Jews throughout Eastern Europe. In 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the newspaper and its editors vanished into the cataclysm of the Holocaust. Thirty-four years later and more than 4,000 miles away, two professors in Boston sat down to discuss their dream of a new independent Jewish magazine. One was Leonard Fein, then teaching at Brandeis University; the other was Elie Wiesel, from Boston University. Wiesel recalled that his father Shlomo, who had been incarcerated with him in Auschwitz and died shortly before liberation, had been an avid reader of Der Moment. Fein and Wiesel decided their new publication would be called Moment, to continue the legacy of Der Moment. Wiesel would be literary editor, Fein editor.

In his editor’s note in the May 1975 inaugural issue of Moment, Fein set out the magazine’s mandate “that Moment will help raise the sense of Jewish possibility, hence also raise Jewish aspirations.” For Fein, Moment was “above all else, an invitation: an invitation to take Jewish possibilities seriously (but not somberly); an invitation to inquiry, to learning, to literature, to Jewish life richly conceived. For that reason, no aspect of Jewish life is alien to us. And for that reason, as well, no established verity is outside the scope of our critical concern.” For its 45 years of publication, Moment has stayed true to this mission, becoming a vital chronicle of modern American Jewish history. Even at its inception, Fein realized its potential value for historians, jokingly thinking of a future doctoral student’s thesis, “The First Years of Moment and How It Helped Shape and Nurture, Protect and Defend Jewish Life and Bring Us to Our Present Happy State.” As he predicted, Moment’s archives today are a lens into what has troubled, concerned, excited and inspired American Jews from 1975 to the present.

Cover of May/June 1975

Moment’s first issue lived up to its tagline as “The New Magazine for American Jews.” A mix of literature, criticism and Jewish thought, the publication featured prominent voices such as Calvin Trillin, writing a satirical piece about his Eastern European immigrant family (who arrived in the U.S. via the port of Galveston, courtesy of New York banker Jacob Schiff) and Susan Dworkin surveying the growing American Jewish feminist movement. The magazine ended with an essay from Wiesel, “Remembering,” marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, “when the remaining young boys and girls rose up and made a desperate last bid to live—or at least die—as free human beings.” He called upon Jews to remember all six million, “those who took up arms and fought but also those who did not, those who had the strength to resist but also those who chose to die in silence.”

But it was the State of Israel that took up most of Moment’s pages, with pieces such as “Can Israel Win Another War?” and “The Real Threat of the P.L.O.” And an exchange of letters between Shlomo Avineri and Robert Alter examined the state of Zionism inside and outside of Israel. “The classic Zionist position on Jewish existence, which half a century ago was still the subject of strident debate among Jews, has become a generally assumed fact for most Jews, even for many who are not officially Zionist,” wrote Alter, adding, “One issue about which classic Zionism was dead wrong was the so-called ‘normalization’ of Jewish life through the establishment of a Jewish state. The intrinsic terms of Jewish national existence are anomalous, and the cutting edge of the anomaly has, if anything, become more acutely felt since the creation of a Jewish state, supposedly k’chol hagoyim” (“like all other nations”).

The magazine’s first year managed to cover Lubavitcher Mitzvah Tanks, Jewish cops, and corruption in the American Jewish world. Some opinion columns could easily appear in today’s Moment—a call for universally funded Jewish education, for example—and yet the sensibilities of the time ring through. “Goyim,” a term we would never publish casually today, is liberally sprinkled throughout the pages. Despite Dworkin’s presence in the first issue, women are woefully underrepresented. Exceptions such as Bella Abzug, detailing her family history and personal journey (“Sometimes I’m asked when I became a feminist, and I usually answer, ‘The day I was born’”), are invigorating. Still, when women did weigh in, their writing was often restricted to “women’s issues.”

Cover of November/December 2016 and May/June 2013

The world’s perception of Israel was a preoccupation throughout the magazine’s early years. The Jewish world was still reeling from the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympians in Munich by a Palestinian terrorist group and the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and the anxiety about Israel’s future was palpable. A 1976 issue had a special section on Zionism in response to the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution that “determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The magazine was unafraid to break taboos. Also in 1976, “The Holocaust Dybbuk,” by Harold Schulweis, questioned the overreliance on Holocaust memory. (“Our concern is the tendency to view Auschwitz as the key to understanding Jewish destiny, the misuse of the image of Buchenwald as the interpretive paradigm of Jewish existence. The flames of the crematoria are no pillars of fire that will guide us through the barren desert into the Jewish promise.”) It caused a stir, garnering a plethora of responses and refutations in subsequent issues.

The 1980s brought new challenges, including concern about the growth of the religious right. In 1981, television producer Norman Lear, a leading voice in fighting the self-described Moral Majority, told Moment that the suggestion that “there is a Christian position on an issue and that there is a Christian way of thinking runs counter to everything I’ve ever thought we meant as a nation by way of pluralism, diversity and the joyful right to hold and express any point of view.”

That same year, up-and-coming journalist Wolf Blitzer wrote a piece provocatively titled “The AIPAC Formula: Why the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Is Washington’s Most Effective Lobby—and American Jewry’s Newest Glamour Organization.” Another young journalist, Yossi Klein, traveled to Israel to cover the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. He would eventually make aliyah, add “Halevi” to his name and become Moment’s first regular correspondent in Israel.

Cover of November/December 2015 and July/August 2004

Looking back, some pieces, such as Robert Gordis’s 1986 plea to the Reform movement to reconsider its position on recognizing patrilineal descent, are out of touch with today’s mores. But the anguish and confusion that Chaim Potok described in his reporting from the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982, as its residents were being evacuated, could have been written about any of Israel’s subsequent territorial withdrawals. And although women’s bylines were still in the minority, the topics the magazine explored on women’s roles surrounding ritual, the rabbinate and the home became more provocative. In one striking piece written in 1983, Rachel Adler, a mother of modern Jewish feminism, proclaims: “Being a Jewish woman is very much like being Alice at the Hatter’s tea party. We did not participate in making the rules, nor were we there at the beginning of the party. At best, a jumble of crockery is being shoved aside to clear a place for us. At worst, we are only tantalized with the tea and bread-and-butter, while being confused, shamed and reproached for our ignorance. When our external reality is absurdity and madness, it is difficult for us to retain internal coherence. We begin to ask, ‘Who are we, really?’ We are being invited by Jewish men to re-covenant, to forge a covenant which will address the inequalities of women’s position in Judaism, but we ask ourselves, ‘Have we ever had a covenant in the first place? Are women Jews?’”

In 1987, Hershel Shanks, the founder of Biblical Archaeology Review, who was well known for his successful legal fight for public access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, became editor of Moment, and the magazine moved from Boston to Washington, DC. “Editorially, we are open to the entire array of political and religious ideologies to which responsible Jews subscribe,” Shanks wrote in his welcome note to what he deemed the new Moment. “We will not be liberal or conservative; dove or hawk; Likud or Labor; Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform. We will be Jewish.” The magazine adopted a newsier look and concentrated on reported pieces covering such topics as the movement to free Soviet Jews and the First Intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Moment published interviews with rising Israeli stars such as 38-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu, then the youngest ambassador in Israel’s diplomatic corps, and articles written by marquee names such as Thomas Friedman and Carl Bernstein. The magazine also delved into issues of Jewish dogma and theology. Notably, David Golinkin, then a senior lecturer in Talmud and Jewish law at the Seminary of Judaic Studies of the Conservative movement in Israel, debuted a responsa section where he answered contemporary halachic questions. The first question was from a single woman who wanted to have a child and was interested in artificial insemination. Is it permissible under Jewish law? The answer was no. “Children from broken homes often suffer from various psychological problems. But these problems were created after the fact. Artificially inseminating an unmarried woman creates such a situation before the child is born,” Golinkin wrote. “Furthermore, the child would suffer the additional stigma of being born out of wedlock and the tension of never knowing his or her father. Why create a situation that is almost bound to lead to psychological problems?”

One subject of persistent interest to Moment was intermarriage. Can we stop it? Should rabbis condone it? Is it the end of the Jewish people? By 1990, Rachel Cowan observed in her Moment column that “interfaith marriage is here to stay.” The question, she argued, was how to draw interfaith married couples into the Jewish community so their children would be raised as Jews. Similarly, Jewish continuity and the Jewish future was a preoccupation that continuously appeared, including in the 1992 symposium “Why Be Jewish?,” in which intellectuals such as Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Hillel Halkin weighed in. Although, as Deborah Lipstadt wrote in a subsequent letter to the editor: “With great anticipation I opened the December 1992 issue to learn what a variety of American Jews had to say in response to the question ‘Why Be Jewish?’ I quickly learned that the title was wrong. It should have read ‘Why Be Jewish According to Seven Men and Two Women.’ Last time I checked, women composed 51 percent of the Jewish community. I would think that you could have found more than two who had some opinion as to why be Jewish. And please, don’t tell me you tried but could not find any women to respond. After a while that kind of excuse wears thin.”

That same year both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton published essays in Moment arguing why they should receive the Jewish vote. But more exciting was the letter to the editor published in a subsequent issue: “I want to thank Moment for giving me the opportunity to share with your readers my views on Israel, the peace process and important domestic concerns (‘Vote for Me’ October 1992). I was also pleased to receive Alan Dershowitz’s endorsement in your pages (‘Why Jews Should Vote for Clinton,’ October 1992). I have found Moment to be on the cutting edge of issues affecting America and American Jews, and am impressed by Moment’s chutzpah, independence, depth and hard-hitting coverage. Hillary and I look forward to continuing to read Moment in the White House. Keep up the good work! Bill Clinton, president-elect, Little Rock, Arkansas.”

Moment was “above all else, an invitation: an invitation to take Jewish possibilities seriously (but not somberly); an invitation to inquiry, to learning, to literature, to Jewish life richly conceived. For that reason, no aspect of Jewish life is alien to us. And for that reason, as well, no established verity is outside the scope of our critical concern.”
–Leonard Fein

The magazine prided itself on showcasing a wide range not just of political ideas, but of Jewish ones as well. This led to a robust opinion section featuring columnists such as Dennis Prager, Francine Klagsbrun and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. It also led to accusations of the magazine being anti-Orthodox. “We give you all responsible views on the issues that divide us as Jews; there are fewer passionate supporters of that mandate,” wrote Shanks. “I like to say that in every issue of Moment you will find something to offend you.” This was perhaps most exemplified by a 1993 issue dedicated to “Homosexuality in Judaism.” The articles ranged from a first-person account of being gay in the Jewish community to a halachic debate on the permissibility of homosexuality and how the community should respond. The following issue’s “Letters to the Editor” were replete with readers lauding the issue as well as readers canceling their subscriptions.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s prompted Moment to publish open letters to Yasser Arafat by five prominent Middle East players, including Amos Oz and James A. Baker. Some were cautiously optimistic, most were wary and others were scathing: “Without question the most enviable of all your skills is to have found the way to be given credit by your followers for the untold mayhem and murder you have caused to be committed in their name, and at the same time somehow to have emerged in the world’s reckoning as a ‘moderate,’” wrote Midge Decter. Rich debate occurred over Jonathan Pollard, his crimes and his sentencing. (Pollard was a prolific letter writer, and Moment has a box full of his correspondence from prison.) Bill Clinton’s impeachment was closely covered, including “Monica and the Prez: What Jewish Law Says.” There were also deep dives into the long, often troubled relationship between Jews and Christians, in particular the Vatican.

Cover of Summer 2019, March/April 2017 and September/October 2010

The appearance of the World Wide Web is charted through stories about the effect of the internet on Judaism, such as the now-prescient “Is a Cyberspace Minyan Kosher?” (2000). At the same time, Moment continued its love affair with literature, with Anne Roiphe writing about the new class of American Jewish novelists and Rodger Kamenetz exploring the connection between writing and spirituality. And although the magazine relied on veteran writers, it continued its tradition of bringing in newer voices with young journalists such as Emily Bazelon and Liel Leibowitz. The magazine also broke important stories on the Islamic Waqf’s relationship to the Temple Mount, and on Saddam Hussein’s secret Jewish archives.

In 2004 veteran journalist and author Nadine Epstein took over the magazine, ushering it into a new era. The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were burned into everyone’s memory, the Oslo Accords had achieved far less than hoped for, the Israeli settler movement had become entrenched and Israel’s political right was in the ascent. Epstein vowed to create a space of open dialogue in an increasingly divisive world. “If Moment didn’t exist, it would need to be invented,” she wrote. “It’s unfortunate, but American society has become shockingly polarized. Like the rest of the nation, the world of Judaism cleaves along ideological and religious fault lines.” Moment, she argued, was a way to engage with those you might not encounter in your own bubble. “We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand and pretending the Other Jew, whoever he or she might be, doesn’t exist.”

To that end the magazine added a new roster of columnists from different points along the political spectrum—David Frum, Gershom Gorenberg, Eric Alterman and Naomi Ragen. Moment also debuted its “Ask the Rabbis” section, in which a group of rabbis spanning the spectrum of Jewish thought answered an original and provocative question in each issue. It soon became a reader favorite. It also received international media attention when in 2009, Chabad rabbi Manis Friedman answered the question, “How should Jews treat their Arab neighbors?” His answer—“The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle)”—shocked Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike and ignited a debate on the responsibility of publishing pieces that reflect poorly on the Jewish community. Friedman, who received death threats, later said that he was referring to specific wartime situations and apologized “for any misunderstanding my words created.”

We give you all responsible views on the issues that divide us as Jews; there are fewer passionate supporters of that mandate. I like to say that in every issue of Moment you will find something to offend you.
–Hershel Shanks

The magazine’s literary and cultural offerings flourished in an expanded book section under the guidance of Mike Levitas, with reviews from notable journalists and writers such as David Margolick, Clyde Haberman and Virginia Heffernan. Profiles of literary luminaries such as Walter Mosley and Joyce Carol Oates opened a window into the influence of their Jewish identity on their work. Erica Jong and Marge Piercy published poetry. And established writers such as Etgar Keret published original works of fiction along with the winners of the annual Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation short fiction contest.

On its 35th anniversary, Moment began to focus on what would become one of its signature contributions to the Jewish world: symposiums asking big questions on existential quandaries and pressing issues of Jewish life. As Epstein wrote: “It behooves us to care enough about each other to understand and transcend our differences. That’s why Moment goes out of its way to offer a broad array of opinions.” In the inaugural symposium, Moment asked more than 70 prominent Jews “What Does It Mean to Be a Jew Today?” Everyone from Mel Brooks to Susannah Heschel to Stephen Dubner weighed in. “Being Jewish is a dynamic struggle with identity. It’s Jacob with the angel, or whoever it is who comes in the middle of the night to wrestle with him. That’s what Jews do: We wrestle with God, we wrestle with others, and, most fundamentally, we wrestle with ourselves,” said Jerome Groopman, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “One of the wonderful legacies of Jewish thought is challenging authority and doubting.” Moment has gone on to tackle other major questions, about belief in God today, religion and violence, the origins of democracy and what it means to be pro-Israel.

In a 2014 symposium dedicated to investigating the origins and staying power of anti-Semitism, most respondents viewed it as a problem in Europe rather than the United States. “Nowadays, it’s still convenient for any country in turmoil,” said David Mamet. “In the absence of any enemy, people say, ‘Oh good, I know it’s probably the Jews—that’s probably it.’” Some even viewed the word as worn out: “I am always suspicious of the way ‘anti-Semitism’ is used—it is an easy, convenient label used to end a conversation or analysis instead of exploring what is really going on,” said Hasia Diner. “This does not mean that there is not a thing called anti-Semitism, but I think it is profoundly overused.” In general, the answers lacked urgency, dealing more in the theoretical and abstract.

Three years later, however, the Moment cover of September 2017 was dedicated to the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States, and articles inside included a dispatch from Whitefish, Montana, the location of one of the first post-2016 election white-supremacist altercations, as well as an interview about the repercussions of the Charlottesville rally and the reemergence of David Duke. While this was alarming, little more than one year later Moment delayed printing of its 2018 November/December issue to create a cover and response to the fatal shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Following this attack, the magazine also launched its Anti-Semitism Monitor, a website led by Ira N. Forman that tracks and fact-checks anti-Semitic domestic and international incidents. The magazine specialized in deeply reported feature stories that put current events in a larger context.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran in 2005, Moment published a blockbuster piece by Robert S. Greenberger, “How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran,” looking at the history of Jews in Persia and the geopolitics of the area.When Vladimir Putin solidified his power in Russia, Konstanty Gebert wrote “Putin’s Jews,” explaining how the Russian president had surrounded himself with Jewish oligarchs and rabbis for power and protection against any claims of anti-Semitism. Moment also highlighted hot-button topics affecting American Jews, such as the deepening relationship between Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian rights movement, and the growing gap between American and Israeli Jews. A series on Sheldon Adelson and his media empire and another on George Soros received critical acclaim, generating a mix of impassioned letters lauding Moment’s work and a flurry of canceled subscriptions.

If Moment didn’t exist, it would need to be invented. Like the rest of the nation, the world of Judaism cleaves along ideological and religious fault lines.”
–Nadine Epstein

Under Epstein, Moment has become the rare journalistic endeavor where women occupy the senior positions. It has published examinations of the #MeToo movement and reported on the changing role of women in political and religious life. In one recent piece, Moment asked how female clergy have transformed Jewish life, ritual and practice. The answers from Sally Preisand, Blu Greenberg, Avi Shafran and others were varied. “Nearly five decades after the ordination of the first woman in the United States, so much has changed. What was once alternative, even countercultural, has for many become tradition,” said Sandy Sasso, the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism. “For nearly five decades, Jewish women have poured their souls into the crucible of time and affixed their names to the holy narrative of our people. What happened is nothing short of a revolution. It is not finished yet.”

Moment is also a work in progress. As Judaism and Jewish life continue to grow and change in America, so too will Moment. Although the magazine has gone through different iterations, different editors and different times, the publication has always been and always will be dedicated to serious inquiry into the Jewish experience. And while technology and society have changed, many of the concerns facing the Jewish community remain the same as described by Epstein in a 2015 editorial: “How can we remember the Holocaust and teach it to future generations? Will Jewish children and their children identify as Jews? How can the State of Israel stay a secure and democratic homeland for Jews? Will Jews of the future feel a deep connection to Israel?” And, as always, “What does it mean to be Jewish in America?”

What Else Was Happening in 1975?

The original 1975 Saturday Night Live cast. (From left) Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd. (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

• The Vietnam War ends with the fall of Saigon and surrender of South Vietnam.

• Minimum wage is raised to $2.10 per hour.

• As the U.S. experiences a recession, the unemployment rate reaches 9.2 percent.

• Saturday Night Live debuts, with George Carlin as host.

• Watergate figures John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman and John

• Ehrlichman are found guilty of conspiring to obstruct justice.

• Jaws opens and becomes the first modern blockbuster movie.

• Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album is released.

• Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft.

• All in the Family is the highest rated TV show in the U.S.

• Muhammad Ali defeats Joe Frazier in the boxing extravaganza “Thrilla in Manila.”

• 100,000 march in New York City demanding freedom for Soviet Jewry.

• Israel officially accepts Ethiopian Jews as Jewish for purposes of the Law of Return.

• The UN General Assembly declares Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

—timeline by Francie Weinman Schwartz

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