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The Opinion Maker

Eytan Kobre

Everyone has an opinion, but few get paid to express it. Jeff Jacoby, the Orthodox Jewish, conservative-minded columnist at the overwhelmingly liberal Boston Globe, is one of the select few. And whether readers love his column or hate it, when it comes to Jacoby, everybody’s got an opinion.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

man It’s Sunday afternoon and the editorial offices of the Boston Globe are nearly deserted, a perfect opportunity to lean in and ask Jeff Jacoby the question I’ve always wanted to pose to an opinion columnist for a major newspaper: “Why the hashkamah minyan?”

The reason, of course, that I’d never gotten to ask that question is that Jeff Jacoby is a rarity, if not a singularity, among op-ed writers on the editorial pages of a big-city daily: He’s a frum Jew. And not just at any newspaper, but a famously liberal one, the largest in famously liberal Boston, and owned by the equally left-leaning New York Times. Jeff is virtually the Globe’s lone conservative voice, or as one wag put it, he’s its ‘conservative in captivity.’

So why is he a stalwart member (and, along with teenage son Caleb, a sometimes baal korei) of the Young Israel of Brookline’s early Shabbos morning minyan? His answer is trademark Jeff Jacoby, straightforward and Midwest commonsensical: “I’ve been a confirmed hashkamah guy for a long time. I just hate to waste the time. But my wife has a different explanation: She’s says I’m antisocial.”

The title “op-ed columnist” often conjures an image of a hyper-intellectual pontificator. But this Cleveland, Ohio native is as down-to-earth as they come. He’s what one might call the “un-columnist.”

To be sure, Jacoby, whose columns are regularly cited and discussed in right-wing circles — and lambasted in left-wing ones — pulls his intellectual weight as a serious conservative thinker whose work has garnered awards like the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism. His mode of persuasion, though, is not through displays of cerebral fireworks, but by means of reasoned and reasonable thinking, well supported by a full array of sources in law, history, and science. The experience of reading his columns is a bit like inviting an amiable, learned, and world-wise uncle — button-down sweater and all — into one’s living room for a fireside chat.

Nor is there even a trace of a writer’s occupational hazard of arrogance. When I ask Jacoby whether he has mentored students interested in journalism, he says, “When students say to me ‘I want to have a career like yours, so what can you advise me?’ I basically respond, ‘Wait for the phone to ring, because for me that’s how it began. I got a phone call.’ I was never a reporter, so I didn’t come up the ladder like a lot of reporters who toil in the journalistic vineyards for many years.” And of teaching others the writing craft, he says, “a bunch of my colleagues teach writing seminars and journalism classes and I always marvel at how they do it. I’m not very good at distilling things into techniques or rules of thumb.” As for why he’s not quite a regular on the scholar-in-residence circuit, he humbly comments, “As you know, in every case, the ‘residence’ part isn’t really true, and in my case, neither is the ‘scholar’ part.” 

Jacoby doesn’t even write books or blogs or host talk shows, as many other writers in his league do. “Part of it,” he says, “is that I’m a very slow writer — excruciatingly so. I read slowly and I write slowly. Years ago there was a sportswriter for the New York Times named Red Smith, and when he was asked what it was like to write his column, he said, ‘I sit down at the typewriter, I open up a vein and I squeeze it out, one drop at a time.’ Writing has always been like that for me.

“Now, [prolific British historian] Paul Johnson is an example of somebody I wish I could write like; he just sits down and two hours later, out comes a column. Or take [the late conservative icon] William F. Buckley. Here’s a guy who, at his peak, was writing three syndicated columns a week, editing the biweekly National Review magazine, hosting a television show, giving something like 75 speeches a year, producing a book every year and a half or so, and on top of all that he was being Bill Buckley — you know, yachting across the Atlantic, skiing at Gstaad, etc. — and there I sit for an hour and a half trying to come up with my first paragraph. You get the blessings you get.… Your challenge isn’t to be Rav Moshe Feinstein, but to be what Eytan Kobre can be, what Jeff Jacoby can be. I sometimes feel like I’m good enough to know how good the greats are, but at the same time, I know I don’t have a prayer to be as good as them.”


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