You don't have to look far on the Internet to find discussion of The New York Times as a Jewish paper. I've had some fun with these beliefs -- often closer to conspiracy theories -- but that's because they're pretty ridiculous. Yes, the Times has been owned for more than a century by a prominent American family of German-Jewish immigrants. But, no, that has not translated into a "pro-Jewish" bias. In fact, scholar Laurel Leff argues the Times buried news of the Holocaust and pro-Israel advocacy groups have long accused the paper, and its Jewish reporters, of being anti-Israel.
But, based on this Shabbat story about Shabbos elevators, it appears at least some folks at The New York Times get Judaism.
Tangible things occupy the days of most building managers in New York City. Hot water, floods, bugs, rent checks and so on.
But last week, newly added to the tenant issues facing building managers like Harold M. Jacob, who runs a co-op on the Lower East Side where Orthodox Jews inhabit a substantial portion of the 2,500 apartments, was this almost ontological question:
Does that elevator "know" how many people are on it?
The question is at the core of a ruling issued by a group of prominent rabbis in Israel on Sept. 29 that seems to ban the use of many so-called Shabbos elevators: elevators fixed to stop on every floor from Friday evening until Saturday evening so that observant Jews do not have to press any buttons.
This isn't huge news -- Shabbos elevators have long been considered an impermissible Sabbath loophole -- and was fresher news a week before when NPR aired a four-minute segment -- an eternity for radio -- that mixed the rabbinic decision out of Israel with reporter Peter Kenyon's first-hand experience with a Shabbat elevator. Oh, how exotic!
But there was something special about the way the Times' Paul Vitello approached this story and with the delicate touch he applied in writing about it. I also imagine he had an editor and copydesk that knew what, like an eruv, would be too obscure for the average reader without explication and what would fly (think: Shabbos goy). The article shows both a good understanding of the nuances of Orthodox Jewish life, but also the awareness of how foreign some Jewish practices are to other readers, even other Jews. However, I wish someone had toned down the description of Observant Jews walking around Brooklyn wearing skullcaps and broad-brimmed hats and towing whole nations behind them.
It's become increasingly rare these days to be able to find and follow a great reporter for your morning paper. If you don't get the Times, it's worth keeping an eye out online for Vitello's byline.