Interview: Elinor Ruth Tatum
Courtesy of Elinor Ruth Tatum
‘When two cultures don’t know each other, there are preconceived notions that must be dispelled,’ says Tatum, ‘and that comes only through education.’
As publisher and editor in chief of Harlem-based New York Amsterdam News, the city’s leading African-American newspaper, Elinor Ruth Tatum is one of the highest profile Jewish black women in the country. Tatum, 38, also produces and cohosts a segment of Al Sharpton’s radio show, Keepin It Real, which discusses national issues facing the black community. With degrees in government and international affairs as well as journalism and mass communication, Tatum is a leader in community affairs organizations, serving on the boards of humanitarian, museum and educational associations. Her dual heritage makes her ideally suited to bring together the Jewish and black communities.
Q. Your father, Wilbert Tatum, the longtime publisher and editor of the Amsterdam News, was a legend, though he roiled the racial waters by criticizing Jewish leaders and organizations, especially during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. What legacy did your father leave you?
A. Because of [his outspokenness and passion], at times he lost friends. But he stood by his beliefs, no matter what. People would come around, sometimes years later, and say, ‘Maybe you weren’t wrong, Tatum.’ We have a responsibility as journalists to the greater world to defend what’s good and call out what is bad.
Q. Not so long ago, the tenor of black-Jewish relations seemed to be set back by people like Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Are we beyond the crisis point?
A. I don’t know if the situation was ever really as bad as some thought. Many issues between blacks and Jews were created more by the media than anyone else. Basically there were two peoples who did not know the other very well. When two cultures don’t know each other, there are preconceived notions that must be dispelled, and that comes only through education. In this sense, I recall a great program initiated by Colette Avital when she was Israel’s consul general in New York, Hands Across the Ocean. It brought four different groups of people together: American blacks and American Jewish kids first, and then Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. They all learned from one another. Their mission was then to go back into their respective communities and learn about the others.
Q. You are frequently seen wearing your Star of David necklace. Can you tell us about your mother, Susan Kohn, from whom you received your Jewish identity?
A. My Jewishness came from both my mom and my dad. I always knew about Jewish law and felt myself to be Jewish. My father [who was a Baptist] was open to all cultures, and by the time I was 13, he had probably been to Israel at least 10 times. I realized I had two important histories. You can see that I am black, and by Jewish law, I am Jewish. My parents said, “If that is how you want to identify, and if that is who you see you are, then that is who you are.” We spent every High Holy Day at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. (The Tatums lived in New York’s East Village.) My mother and father were by my side every year.
Q. How did the Holocaust affect your family?
A. My mother was born in Czechoslovakia in 1934. In 1939, she, her parents and four brothers managed to get out on a boat to South America. They settled in Ecuador. My grandmother’s sister didn’t want to leave, yet she managed to survive Auschwitz. Another aunt was a nurse in the Terezin camp, and she would tell us a wonderful story of liberation.
Q. You have modernized the Amsterdam News, but its circulation, 26,000 in 1998, has since dropped dramatically to a little more than 11,000. What is your paper’s strategy for surviving?
A. Newspapers are in trouble. Advertising is down. Readership has declined almost everywhere, so we are fighting an uphill battle. That said, the black press, and community newspapers in general, have a niche that is not filled by the mainstream dailies and therefore we have a leg up on them.
Q. This is a big year for your paper, your 100th anniversary. What is the role and mission of the Amsterdam News?
A. We are a history of black New York. I always say if you were to read the Amsterdam News from one week and The New York Times, Daily News or New York Post from the same week a hundred years from now, you wouldn’t know you were in the same city because we cover different things, and we try to cover what is happening in our community and how it is reacting to developments.
Q. Can you describe your experiences visiting Israel?
A. I was there when I was 13 for the first time, then again around 2001, and then again in January 2008. [On that first trip] I remember visiting one of the first absorption centers for [Ethiopian] newcomers. We got there on a Friday evening. It was absolutely fascinating for a young girl to sit in a room with Ethiopian Jews who had just gotten off the very first plane ride of their lives. They were showing us one of the houses at the absorption center, and somebody went to turn on the light. This little Ethiopian boy, no more than 5, didn’t speak English or Hebrew, jumped up. He took the man’s hand and said, ‘No, no, Shabbat.’ It was so amazing to see how the religion transcended distance. Today, the [focus] is how the Ethiopian Jews are faring, how they are becoming part of society, getting into the Knesset and [Israel Defense Forces] leadership ranks. There are some exciting new programs going on, like at the Weizmann Institute for Science [and Technion Institute] for the Ethiopian Jewish kids who are learning sciences.
Q. Have you followed the progress of the Ethiopian immigrants?
A. It is such a dramatic story. We are talking about going home. The only thing you can probably compare it to somewhat in the U.S. is how the Amish have lived for generations in isolation. There were some problems with the way [the aliya was handled], but at the same time I don’t know if there was another solution or better way to absorb them. I really think Israel put its best foot forward in trying to make the transition as smooth as possible. Any time you bring groups of people over there are issues. When I went to one of the absorption centers the last time I was there, looking at the young people in their twenties and thirties who are now going to college, going into politics, I found that exceptionally refreshing.
Q. What do you think of President Obama’s peace strategy for the Middle East?
A. If we can get peace in the Middle East, it’s good for everybody. That is the billion-dollar question that has challenged and frustrated us for decades. We have seen road maps to peace [and] a variety of plans. The formula for success lies between just how upset people are and their willingness to compromise. The only way I believe there can be a solution in the Middle East is probably the two-state solution. The problem with this approach is there has to be the realization from the other side that Israel does have the right to exist. There also has to be a realization on the Israeli side that the Palestinian state has the right to exist. I am a big believer in peace in the Middle East, but I claim no answers on how to get there. I do feel, however, that if anyone can achieve it, this president can.
Q. What insights have you brought to your unique position as an American Jewish woman?
A. When I think about being Jewish in the role that I fill, I realize that first and foremost I am an educator. There are misconceptions that must be addressed. Two groups that do not always live or work together naturally may not understand or be terribly sensitive to the other. I hope that I will succeed to some degree in bridging [the gap] between the black and Jewish communities. Part of this can be achieved through the pages of my newspaper and my regular TV and radio appearances. Part of it by just speaking to people, in lectures or one by one—for instance, a group of [black and Jewish] young people from differing backgrounds brought together by a black judge and a Jewish judge in the city’s courthouses to have discussions around race. I have worked with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. I have spoken at synagogues and at churches about being black and Jewish both in New York and in other states. The paper has partnered with the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. I spearheaded a trip with AIPAC for black publishers and journalists to Israel last year…publishers from across the country—New York, D.C., Baltimore, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Philadelphia, as well as the VP of news and documentary of BET. Who better to tackle such a mission than a person who comes from both those worlds? H