The custom around these parts is to tell about yourself before entering the blogging fray. It seems only right, rather like a shrink who must submit to therapy before taking on his own patients. I look forward to getting started, especially because I have strong ideas about what passes for religion coverage today. I am convinced that the best way to improve it is with a keen eye, constructive suggestions and sense of humor.
Religion and writing are part of my personal story. I got the writing bug from my late mother, a school librarian and lover of books, and the religion bug from my late father, who made his living in real estate but found his greatest happiness in Jewish texts and in the synagogue. I attended Yeshiva University, where I was in the pre-rabbinical program, but decided that the better pulpit for me was through writing and enrolled at Columbia Journalism.
My first job was as a copy boy at The New York Times and I rose at the paper to news assistant, news clerk and then in 1975 to reporter. I got the religion beat in 1983, just as Bishop John O'Connor of Scranton was named Archbishop of New York. I covered him almost daily for the next ten years.
In 1985-86 I spent a year studying comparative religion at Harvard Divinity School. Out of that experience came my book The Search for God at Harvard. The experiences of academic study and of long form writing that grew out of my year at Harvard helped propel me out of the Times and into a position as a professor at Columbia.
I've been teaching a course called "Covering Religion" since I arrived in 1993. In 1996, the Scripps Howard Foundation began to support Columbia's religion program and has enabled me to travel with my students to look at the religion story in different parts of the world, including Israel, Russia, India and Ireland. You can sample my students' work at www.coveringreligion.org.
A number of my students have gone on to be religion writers at newspapers big and small in such cities as Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, New York, Raleigh, N.C. and LaCrosse, Wisc. I take great pride in their work.
At Columbia I've also been involved in some controversies about changes in the curriculum having to do with new media. I have worried out loud about a headlong embrace of new media at the sacrifice of journalistic standards and ethics. I was quoted rather stridently in a recent article in New York Magazine.
I've also been something of a lightning rod for criticism within my own Orthodox Jewish denomination. I exist on the tiny progressive end of a denomination that has seen a sharp shift to the right in recent years. I support a greater role for women and gays in Judaism and I advocate interfaith dialogue, all controversial stands within Orthodoxy.
My other passion is the music of the cello. I bought myself a cello in 1975 soon after I became a Times reporter and I've been trying to play it ever since. Last year I played with my son's youth orchestra and wrote about it in the Times. This year I joined the cello section of the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra.
I have done a lot in my career, but I've never blogged until now. I have learned much from my wife, Shira Dicker, whose beautifully-written blog, Bungalow Babe in the Big City, is a forum for her iconoclastic ideas and is a good place to catch up on the lives of our three children. I sometimes get mentioned there too.