I am one lucky woman. I get to write for what I consider to be the most outstanding Jewish magazine in the world. I know that what I write will be read by my community, by fellow Orthodox Jews who care about the same issues I do, women with husbands and kids and dreams and worries just like me. My work for Mishpacha has never been just a job. It’s a passion, a mission, a miracle.
It’s also an enormous responsibility, one that I feel much more pressing because I live as an Orthodox Jew. If I were just a hired employee, an English major from university, a skilled writer or editor for hire, it would only be my responsibility to make sure that I make deadline, and deliver quality writing. But because I am first and foremost an Orthodox Jew, then writer, the responsibility I feel to the klal stretches far beyond the job description of Mishpacha writer. I love the letters that begin, “Thank you, you changed my life….” And I cringe because the opposite can also be true. I can do damage with my words, and it scares the daylights out of me.
As the health columnist for Mishpacha, never has this been more clearly revealed than when I spend many hours interviewing dozens of people for a major feature on a health issue like Crohn’s, or stuttering, or cystic fibrosis, or growth hormones, for example. As a journalist, it is my responsibility to offer accurate, balanced, thorough reporting — in fact, that is what Mishpacha does best, in-depth reporting on issues of great importance to the klal. And so it is that my health features generally involve interviews with a wide spectrum of individuals — individuals with the disease, spouses and parents who care for those people, doctors, nutritionists, and more.
I attempt to put a positive spin on all of my writing. Even when I’m writing about a serious medical condition, I find individuals who are living productive lives, who are managing the hardships, and are inspiring role models to those in our community who may be struggling. I try to offer hope and encouragement in my writing whenever possible.
And yet, we can’t get away from one stark reality. The shidduch scene can be a nightmare for anyone who has a medical condition of any kind. When I report on a medical condition, no matter how hard I try to write about it in a positive, encouraging way, I still receive criticism from readers who feel that I may have endangered their future shidduchim possibilities by openly discussing the disease or disability in the magazine. There are readers who write to thank Mishpacha for the open discussion, for the information, for the resources and support, and for the courage to educate without “fear of shidduchim issues” casting a gray cloud over it all. But I’m a sensitive soul, and all it takes is one reader to write a scathing letter about how angry he or she is, and I won’t lie to you — it unnerves me.
And so it is that I felt myself in one of those quandary moments just two nights ago. I am working on a feature article about type 1 diabetes. It can be a difficult medical condition to handle, and if those affected do not take proper care of themselves, terrible consequences can result. I located a gentleman willing to talk to me who is a frum Jew, now blind in one eye. He gave over to me a journalist’s dream — the gory details of dozens of surgeries, and tremendous nisayon as he and his doctors fought valiantly to save his eye. It didn’t work. I will find a way to weave his story into the feature, as a warning to those readers who might be in a state of denial about what could happen to them if they don’t manage their sugar and insulin well. We could save a life, at least an eye, by giving over his experience, and that is good.
What is also ringing in my mind is a recent e-mail I received from a frum man with diabetes, who not only refused to be interviewed by me for the article, but went so far as to beg me not to write it, insisting that it was my job as an Orthodox Jew, first, (Mishpacha writer second), to present only the positives, the manageable aspects of the medical condition, so that I wouldn’t scare any potential shidduchim away. He ended his angry e-mail to me by saying that it was “on my shoulders” should any shidduchim fail to proceed because of something that I wrote.
So, am I the Jew, the Journalist, or both? Do I share the juicy details of this man who lost his eye, because it serves the purpose of being both educational and a good read, and it will help Mishpacha readers who need to be forewarned? Or, do I hesitate to share any story that is as horrifying as his is, because readers could find the prospect of losing one’s sight so frightening, they would close their minds to a potential shidduch with an individual who happens to have diabetes … even though that individual might take such good care of him or herself, losing eyesight is not a likely occurrence?
When I’m just a journalist, I tell as gruesome a story as possible — sensational reading, the more the better.
When I am a Jew, I am looking out for my fellow Jew, and choosing every word through the lens of wanting to protect any Jew from potential damage from any word I might write.
So, how detailed can I, and should I, get, as an Orthodox Jewish journalist, as it relates to this man losing his eye because of uncontrolled diabetes?
Stay tuned, and when you read the article, you’ll see what I decided … with Mishpacha editorial input as well, of course.