Introduced as “two scribes, an Irish bard and a Jewish bard that perhaps only New York City could’ve produced,” veteran journalists Pete Hamill and Clyde Haberman offer the kind of insight, integrity, intelligence, humanity and wit we most value in those who deliver real (as opposed to “fake”) news. Both sons of immigrants, they address the immigrant experience then and now, their careers, and the city that inspires.
Brooklyn born, Irish Catholic raised, Pete Hamill is a journalist, novelist, essayist, editor and educator who joined the New York Post in 1960. His newspaper career spanned decades including bylines at the Post, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice, editorship at the Post, and editor in chief position at the New York Daily News. A storyteller to his bones, Hamill can be depended upon for empathy and illumination, whether writing nonfiction or fiction.
Bronx born Clyde Haberman joined The New York Times as a copy boy in 1964, reported for the New York Post and returned to the Times as, successively, editor, reporter, bureau chief, foreign correspondent, and author of his twice-a-week column. Since 2014, Haberman has written a regular Times column accompanying series of video documentaries. He’s the author and editor of The Times of the Seventies: The Culture, Politics, and Personalities That Shaped the Decade.
The men couldn’t be more different in style. Slightly rumpled, Hamill genially leans in to his co-speaker or out to the audience. Hands rest in his lap but for the occasional punctuating gesture. His voice rises through gravel. Haberman looks polished and ironed, sits up straight, and barely turns toward Hamill, even when responding to him. Speaking is understated, but precise. Long fingers toy with his glasses. Both are thoughtful and quick, clearly enjoying one another.
“I have to confess, I’ve never heard the words “Jewish” and “bard” together,” begins Haberman. “I came across a Brendan Behan quote recently in which he comments other people have problems, the Irish and the Jewish have psychoses.”
“My parents came separately from Belfast. They were people to whom things had been done and swore they’d never do things that had been done to them,” Hamill says. “We should know. We were once them,” he adds speaking of the plight of today’s asylum seekers. “The Irish worrying about Brexit may be obscure, but destroying a synagogue is an ominous warning. We’ve got someone – I don’t want to get into politics, but his name rhymes with hump – who encourages this.”
“In Snow in August (a story of the unlikely friendship of a young Irish, Catholic boy and an elderly Jewish rabbi) you say Jews have given us tenacity, irony, and moral intelligence,” Haberman comments. “Why is irony a Jewish trait?”
Hamill responds that gifted Jewish writers have a way of looking at the world that “penetrates the mind rather than blah, blah, blah.” He notes that in newspapers, they used to make new arrivals in New York understood by the old timers and vice versa. “I fear that’s gone away.” Haberman counters with a quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer in spot-on accent. When asked if the Yiddish language was dying, the author replied, “Vell, it’s sick, but it’s a long way between sick and dying.”
Haberman describes his upbringing as insular. He was a Yeshiva boy whose entire education took place in predominantly Jewish schools. “There was really no integration after my bar mitzvah, not until I went into the army.” Moving to an Irish/Italian neighborhood, he was put off by a boy constantly disparaging “either the friggin’ Mick or the friggin’ Ginnie. It was a revelation to me.”
Hamill, an altar boy at Holy Name, passed by the back door of a synagogue to and from the church. One day a rabbi asked for help turning on a light – it was the Sabbath – “for the enormous sum of 25 cents. My allowance was ten cents! I did it for him all summer.” It’s clear Hamill and Haberman have respect for one another’s backgrounds.
Both fans, they banter about baseball with knowledge and black humor. “My hero was Mickey Mantle who was not the nicest person,” Haberman tells us. “His batting average was 353… Dan Barry once said to me, Are you sure that wasn’t his blood alcohol level?…Each spring I teach a course at Hunter College about New York City. I’m struck there are virtually no baseball fans among these mostly Asian and Latino folks…if I find one, it’s an automatic A.”
New York City coverage has been reduced in favor of national news. Both journalists bemoan the fact. Hamill suggests a page in the City Section with columnists covering every borough. The men discuss the trend towards digital instead of paper. “I’m a platform agnostic,” Haberman says. “I don’t give a damn how they read us, whether the traditional dead tree form or pixels.”
An unexpected parentheses occurs when Haberman asks Hamill whether his relationship with Robert F. Kennedy crossed a journalistic line. Hamill admits it did and notes he never made the mistake again. Apparently Kennedy asked Jack Neufield, Jimmy Breslin and Hamill each to introduce him to parts of New York.
“He listened and asked questions. I knew he might be different. He won me.” Hamill helped persuade the senator to run for the United States presidency, worked for the campaign, covered it as a journalist, and was one of four men who disarmed Sirhan Sirhan of his gun in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination.
“How reasonably fearful should we be for what he’s (President Trump) done in regard to fake news? I worry he’s permanently set up a premise that undermines the craft. Am I being overly pessimistic?” Haberman asks his elder.
Hamill muses. “It’s true the consequence of that might turn into pervasive cynicism. If that happens…Generations believed if tomorrow wasn’t better, the day after tomorrow will be goddamn good.” Hamill seems a thoughtful optimist, Haberman a regretful pessimist. The subject of Israel is raised. “What would your father make of it?” Hamill asks Haberman. Like many others, the response is that Haberman’s father might be “blinded” because of what’s being done for Israel, through his mother would’ve had clearer perspective.
When the floor opens to questions, the first is about immigration. Hamill is adamant in his beliefs. “People are not a single metal. We’re an alloy, a little of many things…We have a track record of showing more acceptance and being proud of it. It’s going to help us get through this, though we might have to declare independence.” Apparently his feelings on immigration began forming as early as childhood awareness of The Holocaust.
If God is all powerful, he thought, why didn’t he do something? “I think a lot of my Jewish friends felt that way, too. I could never raise the subject with my mother who was a good Irish Catholic. If there’s a Heaven and there’s no Carnegie Deli, no Second Avenue Deli and no Jr.’s, I ain’t goin’!” he quips lightening the mood… “I’m very proud the new Pope is a Jesuit. May his be the noble heart. Even though I don’t think there’s a hereafter, I could be wrong.”
Another audience member raises The New York Times’ failing to properly cover The Holocaust. Haberman replies that there are shortcomings and that The Times formally apologized. “When there are shortcomings in Jewish groups, it’s said, if you ever get Alzheimer’s, the last thing forgotten is a grudge.”
The Me-Too movement elicits a question that posits a quandary. Hamill and Haberman agree the movement was overdue and regret a valuable member of the U.S. Senate, Al Franken, was lost. “But what do we do about terrible accused men who produce great art?” Haberman responds. “Caravaggio was a murderous thug, Ezra Pound was a notorious Anti-Semite…”
How about all the “bozos” who post anything they want complicating information? someone asks. “This is a democracy, so it’s a good thing. One hopes that sooner or later, bozoness comes out. Like Elaine Stritch sang, we’re still here,” (Stephen Sondheim “I’m Still Here”) Haberman answers. “William Faulkner once said of the Mississippi that he loved it in spite of not because.” Hamill grins.
The session is allowed to run until our speakers run out of steam which is to say, a wonderful entertaining while.
The Center for Jewish History offers a multitude of interesting programs and resources made all the richer by their Irish partners.
Photos by Jennifer Rodewald, Center for Jewish History
Pete Hamill on the left, Clyde Haberman at right
Center for Jewish History in partnership with American Jewish Historical Society, the Irish American Writers & Artists, the American Irish Historical Society and Glucksman Ireland House USA presents
Hamill & Haberman – Stories of New York
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
September 8, 2019