IN TIME MAGAZINE, I FOUND OUT that Aaron Copland was Jewish. I had suspected it, and, to tell you the truth, it seemed to me that Copland looked Jewish, but nowhere in the obituaries I read did it say that Copland was Jewish -- not in the New York Times, not in The Washington Post and not anywhere else either. Until Time. It said Copland was born to "immigrant East European Jews." For this, Time is to be congratulated. It is also to be condemned.
Let's take condemned first. The journalistic rule, as I understand it, is that religion, ethnicity or race is not mentioned unless it is deemed relevant. I am no musicologist, but I do know the works of Aaron Copland, and it's hard to see where Copland's religion is relevant to his music. Had Time pointed out that Copland used American folk themes -- for instance, the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" in "Appalachian Spring" -- and contrasted that with his immigrant background, then, possibly, an argument could be made for relevance. But even then it would have been a reach.
And yet I take no umbrage. All my life, I have been interested in who among the famous is Jewish. Left behind as I've moved from one house to another, from one office to another, are books that inform me that Wyatt Earp's wife was Jewish (trust me); that the reputed inventor of the uppercut, Samuel "Dutch Sam" Elias, was Jewish; that the great Harry Houdini was Jewish; and that the even greater Cary Grant may have been partly Jewish, although that's not clear. Until the matter is resolved, I'll claim him as such.
As I say, I am interested, no more, no less. I recognize also that when a person is designated in the press as Jewish, the suggestion of "otherness" is present. After all, if people are almost never identified as Methodist or Roman Catholic (very rare when that happens), when an ethnic or religious label is applied, the implication is unmistakable: "He is not one of us." It is the same with race. Black is not merely a description of what a person is but also of what he is not. Inescapably, it means "non-white." These labels have the ring of "male nurse."
But still, I am interested. Therefore, I was not offended that the obituary writers of the New York Times and The Washington Post told me that William S. Paley was, as the Times put it, "the Chicago-born son of successful Ukrainian Jewish immigrants," although the relevance of that fact was never mentioned: He hid his origins most of his life. Nor, I must say, was I offended when the very same New York Times told me that Samuel Kullman, a founder of a company that made diners, was "a Russian Jewish immigrant." That reference was a true mystery to me. Is there such as thing as a Jewish diner? I think not.
As I said, the newspapers' general policy is that religion, ethnicity or race is mentioned only when it is relevant. That's the official policy. The unofficial policy goes something like this: The gratuitous mention of religion, race, etc. is permitted if the context is favorable. Thus, the brilliant Copland is Jewish. Thus, the successful Paley is Jewish. But it is quite another matter to mention that Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky are Jewish. But had they become famous for, say, finding a cure for a disease, no one would object if somewhere in the newspaper story it said, "Mr. Boesky is the son of immigrant Hungarian Jews." Not a peep.
So, as we can see, the issue is not relevance. It is reader sensitivity. I suppose that someone might object to the fact that certain groups in society have been given veto power over their bad press, but that's also understandable. What's not understandable is the degree of that veto power. For instance, The Washington Post is so shy about mentioning race that it recently ran a story saying the U.S. Park Police were seeking a suspected rapist who looked like this: "about 30 years old, 5-feet, 8-inches tall, and stockily built." Race? The Post offered not a clue. (It turned out he was white.)
In fact, that particular story violated Post policy on mentioning race when relevant. But who can blame the writer or his editors for keeping race out of the story? The taboo has become a strong one. As if to show that it can do better than The Post, the New York Times recently had a front-page account of how a gang of youths had set upon some homeless men and slashed one of them to death. "The attack echoed other crimes that have become ugly hallmarks of New York City in recent years, like the rape of a Central Park jogger . . . and the fatal stabbing of a tourist from Utah," the Times said. The paper said that what these attacks had in common was their senselessness.
Well, not exactly -- or not only. What any New Yorker would tell you is that another common element was race: white victims and black or Hispanic assailants. In fact, the crimes put New York in a racial tizzy from which it has not yet recovered. But the Times did not mention race at all. Almost alone in New York, the paper was colorblind.
Admirable? Maybe. Nothing says the press has to be as obsessed with ethnicity and race as society in general. Nothing says, either, that the press is obligated to satisfy the reader's curiosity about everything. But having said that, I also have to say (as a collector of Judaic exotica) that for all its highfalutin tone, the policy of the press when it comes to religious, ethnic and racial designations comes down to an endearing desire not to offend. Miss Manners would undoubtedly approve since, as she has written so many times, not everything we want to know are we entitled to find out.
Yeah, but I'm interested anyway.