The Arty Semite

Putting Tuvia Tenenbom in Context

By Adam Langer

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Racheli Ibenboim chats with writer Tuvia Tenenbom./Photo by Isi Tenenbaum

For those who haven’t read much of the work of Tuvia Tenenbom, his most recent column has understandably raised some eyebrows and not a few tempers. Asking a Haredi politician, or any public figure, about her personal life (and her wedding night) would seem to be, at best, an indelicate journalistic approach to gaining wisdom about the practices of her community.

This particular column has led to an unusual outpouring of displeasure directed at the traditionally (and perhaps unfortunately) uncontroversial arts and culture section here at the Forward. And as the editor of this section (albeit one on vacation in Chicago this week) I take the concerns of our readers seriously.

My own relationship with Tenenbom is about one year old. I encountered him first as the author of “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room,” a rollicking travelogue about anti-Semitism in Germany, which also raised eyebrows and tempers while becoming an unlikely bestseller in Germany. When I learned that Tenenbom was planning a sequel, this one set in Israel, I was eager to have him on board as an occasional contributor, filing his impressionistic reports about the individuals, controversies and circumstances he encountered.

I understand that Tenenbom’s style is not for everyone — he can be controversial, loud, Rabelaisian, irreverent, and to some minds, downright rude. Whether he’s seeing what it would be like to be a (short, white) Muslim in Jerusalem, investigating skin treatments at the Dead Sea or cheating in a mini-marathon in Nazareth he brings to mind the sort of characters created by Sacha Baron Cohen, whose idiosyncratic, disarming and non-traditional approach can sometimes get to deeper issues. I understand that not everyone — even in the offices of the Forward — shares my opinion.

One feature of Tenenbom’s work is that he doesn’t interview traditional subjects and he doesn’t interview his subjects traditionally. It is easy to imagine an interviewer asking someone in the Gur community why they have banned fathers from dancing with their own children, or finding out who pressured Ibenboim to withdraw from the election for which she was standing. That’s not his way. In this snapshot of a meeting, Tenenbom observes that she has broken out of her community’s social constrictions in many ways but not in others. In writing the gracious diplomacy in Ibenboim’s replies he successfully makes her the hero of his piece. Like Borat, the joke is on him.

As arts & culture editor, I have been trying to bring in to the Forward a multitude of voices that capture not only a wide variety of artistic expressions and styles but also the breadth of our community of which Tenenbom is a part. I would encourage those who have written to us about his article to view this work in the context of his book, his previous journalism and his largest project, which has always been to challenge, incite, question and entertain. For some, he doesn’t always succeed in these efforts, and to tell you the truth, we don’t always either. But we do try and we do listen. And we will try our best to continue to do so.

Adam Langer is the Forward’s arts & culture editor. Reach him at langer@forward.com


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