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Creative Reportage at The Age

July 28, 2009 – 11:32 am12 Comments
Jew with beard = newsworthy?

Jew with beard = newsworthy?

By The Hasid

By now, you’ve probably heard that an American tourist died in Melbourne on July 23, after being clipped by a motorbike on Hotham Street. Sad news indeed. And, yes, sadly newsworthy. Though such stories are normally kept short, anonymous and buried (if you’ll excuse the expression) in the latter pages of the paper; betwixt a mud slide in Bolivia (feh!) and factory riots in a remote province of western China (yawn).

But page three of The Age? A 220 word column with a photograph of the deceased?

Well, yes. If you’re an ultra-Orthodox Jew with connections to the Adass community, that is.

It never ceases to amaze me. Mundane news becomes a lot… newsier, I suppose, if you’re a Jew with a beard.

To quote directly from the article (by Mex Cooper and Barney Zwartz), published on Friday July 24:

An American tourist who died after he was hit by a motorcycle at Ripponlea on Wednesday night was a leading member of a small Jewish sect.

Holocaust survivor Yitzchok Rotenberg, 71, struck his head on the road after being clipped by a motorbike as he crossed Hotham Street on his way to the Adass Israel Synagogue.

Cooper and Zwartz then go on to elucidate the Jewish burial process – how the deceased must be buried as soon as possible; but in Mr Rotenberg’s case the ritual would be delayed because his body was being repatriated to the United States, etc.

I suppose that’s nothing to get too het up about. It is just an article. And this is “the media”, of course. Maybe it was a slow week. I mean, Judy Moran’s 4WD shopping spree was the lead article on the front page that day.

But then it gets really good:

His son, Kalman Rotenberg, is a member of Melbourne’s Adass community, an ultra-Orthodox and reclusive group of about 150 families based in Elsternwick and Ripponlea.

Mr Rotenberg was himself not a member of the Adass community, but a prominent member of a similarly small, deeply conservative Jewish community in New Square, New York.

The Adass community hit the front pages last year when the principal of the Adass Israel Girls School in Elsternwick, Malka Leifer, a mother of eight, fled to Israel ahead of allegations of molesting teenage girls at the school.

Say it with me, dear readers:


What do the alleged crimes (terrible as they are – but that’s another post entirely) of Malka Leifer have to do with the death of Yitzchok Rotenberg? Whoever can answer that question to my satisfaction wins my subscription to The Age for 2010! Good luck. May the force be with you.

Alright, alright. To be serious, for a moment. What happened here? Was there some sort of breakdown in the editorial process? Did no sub-editor (if they still have ‘em) realise that the two events were entirely unconnected? Perhaps there was simply a need to make up column inches and the Adass connection seemed intriguing, in a A Stranger Among Us sort of way. To be honest, I’m surprised by this blunder. Cooper’s name is new to me, but Zwartz (who has been religion editor at The Age for many years) has a reputation for excellent journalism. Though I suppose therein lies the problem – getting a religion reporter to cover the local traffic beat is perhaps not the most logical assignment.

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  • jewinthefat says:


    The connection is an obvious attempt to “sex up” the story – deliberately drawing a link between the Rotenberg and Leifer is about contextualising the story, and justifying the use of so many centimetres of space for a story on a road accident.

    With that being said, I don’t think this is a Jewish-centric issue. The recent murder of the Lin family in North Epping in Sydney is a perfect example of how ethnicity (or ethno-religous affiliation) creeps into a story. On the JJJ “hack” radio-current affair show, the constant interjection by the Daily Telegraph’s Yoni Bashan was about the sole remaining Lin family members determination to keep studying – because, well, Chinese people value studying.

    Likewise, any ethnicity around which a newsworthy incident occurs will always be brought to bear. It’s the old standard – either it’s in the public’s interest, or the public will be interested. It’s definitely in the public’s interest to know that someone died, but it’s also interesting to the public to know the context (however sordid).

  • I both agree and disagree with Jewinthefat. While it is certainly a case of contextualising the story, the information that they provided had nothing to do with the context at all. It’s weird to be a member of an exotic community, the quaint activities of which are so queer to other Australians, but I am sure that this sort of ‘word association journalism’ is prevalent in the media’s dealings with plenty of other ethnic minorities as well.

  • While we are The Age bashing, let me express my disgust at the way they talked up the corruption arrests in New Jersey last week. It appeared one morning on their front page online, and the headline was “Rabbis Arrested”. Yahoo weren’t as quick in putting it on their headline page, and when I found it on MSN, the headline was a bit different: 3 Mayors, 2 Assemblymen, and several Rabbis among 44 arrested. This was a huge corruption scandal, and an equally huge chilul Hashem that Orthodox Jews were involved.

    But The Age will take any opportunity to emphasise the Jewish angle and feature photos of Rabbis and Jews in traditional Orthodox garb to make it seem like yet another Jewish criminal conspiracy.

    What really irks me is that it’s done in a subtle enough way that if you write to them, you’d be dismissed as paranoid.

  • jewinthefat says:

    Interestingly enough, Joseph Wakim has the same thesis – but in reverse:

    “Indeed, an Aussie woman was attacked by a Jewish mob this month in Jerusalem. Journalist Anne Barker – who is the ABC’s Middle East correspondent – recounts her ordeal when she attempted to use her microphone and recorder to report on a local protest.

    The protest in question was against the local council’s decision to allow a car-park to open on Saturdays, “to accommodate the increasing number of tourists visiting Jerusalem’s Old City”. This decision would encourage people to drive, which in turn breaks the rules of the Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

    This journalist claims that she dressed conservatively but her recorder unleashed the fury of the mob of ultra-Orthodox Jews who allegedly targeted her for desecrating the Shabbat when ultra-Orthodox Jews believe modern technologies should not be used, although non-Jews should be exempt from this. Barker was sprayed with verbal abuse and saturated with saliva from the spitting attackers…

    …If Barker’s published ordeal was carried out by Muslim attackers it becomes more palatable as a familiar dish: in an Islamic setting the outrage seems obvious. But because the spitting came from Jewish mouths, we are supposed to be surprised and curious.”


  • The attack on Barker was reported accurately – I was in Jerusalem at the time – those protests were another huge chilul Hashem *sigh*.

    There should be a reasonable test for what news is “surprising and curious”. How many times in the last year have the attackers been Moslems, and how many times have they been Jewish? As Jackie Mason says: “nobody ever crossed the street to avoid a group of Jewish accountants”

  • The Hasid says:

    jewinthefat – yes and no. I don’t really see how linking Rotenberg and Leifer contextualises the story, beyond reinforcing the stereotype of ultra-Orthodox Jews as exotic and ‘other’ and somehow prone to… strange events…? (Sorry, I’m struggling to find the right word!) But you are right – non-Anglo ethnicity is very often factored into news stories when it isn’t relevant to the actual incident/event. (I can’t comment on the Hack program you’re referring to because I haven’t heard it.) Though my gut feeling is that it happens more with Orthodox Jews (and even non-Orthodox Jews) than almost any other ethnicity. How many times did we see Bernie Madoff described a “Jewish financier”? [Although that feeling could perhaps be a result of the fact that, as a Jew, I tend to read a lot of articles about other Jews and have a heightened sensitivity to these things. Perhaps a Vietnamese-Australian or Lebanese-Australian would say the same thing about the portrayal of their community. Still, I reckon Jews are hit with stereotype stick more than any other ethnic group.]

    DW – Yes, the corruption arrests were generally covered quite poorly. It’s a trickier situation though, because the rabbis involved used the privilege and trust conferred by their religious vocation to facilitate their crimes. So reporting on their Jewishness is somewhat relevant – it then becomes a question as to what extent it should be emphasised, and how. The line is subtle indeed and it’s very easy to cross it into conspiracy-land. It’s a similar situation to when someone tells a vaguely distasteful, misogynistic [or racist, insert discrimination of choice here] joke. If you’re offended by it, you must not have a sense of humour and you’re “overreacting”.

  • The Hasid says:

    An interesting development: The Age’s online version of the article is substantially different to the print version, with no mention of Leifer and greater emphasis on the actual accident.

    I wonder when it was changed, and by whom?

  • frosh says:

    Please consider the following hypothetical news report:

    Tristian McPharwick, who was in Australia on holiday from the British Isles, was killed in a traffic accident. Mr McPharwick’s wife is a citizen of Austria, a rather peculiar country in central Europe. Austria was in the headlines last year when one of its citizens, Joseph Fritzl, kept his own daughter a prisoner in his basement for several years, raping her, and fathering…

    I just can’t see The Age reporting the death of the fictional Tristian McPharwick as per the above.

  • eli says:

    I have passed on the link to this discussion to a friend of mine who is a sub editor at the Age , for his thoughts.

    From The Hasid: Thank you, eli.

  • Gary Mallin says:

    I am a senior journalist at The Age. I am Jewish. The Age does some good things and some bad things. Lumping Rotenberg and Leifer was probably at the lower end of the scale, shall we say.
    But there are many steps (mostly made by humans) between author and reader you may not be aware of that may help you understand why common sense gets left behind sometimes, while the express speeds through the station.
    I would love to explain it to you. Drop me a line at gmallin@theage.com.au

    From Galus Australis: Read Gary Mallin’s follow-up post here.

  • SBA says:

    Actually, Mex Cooper of The Age spoke first to me and took all the details and she had (at least) 2 versions of the story on the website – with no mention of Leifer. Later on Barney Zwartz called us and wanted to know details on Jewish law and tradition re death and funerals.

    Seeing that Zwartz was involved with the Age’s front page (and page 2) story on Leifer at the time, I presume that it is his contribution to the Rotenberg story.

    Totally irrelevant, but then so was 3/4 of the original Leifer story where they depicted the Adass community as a cross between a cannibal tribe in New Guinea and the Exclusive Brethren.

    (Though admittedly The Age only had the Leifer story for one day – while the Jewish News dragged it out for 3 or 4 weeks.)

    From Galus Australis: the identity and contact details of this commenter have been disclosed to the editors.

  • The Misnaged says:

    Some comment about this on AJN Watch

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