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Conversation with Rabbi Mark Golub: Defining – and creating – “Jewish television” 


Rabbi Mark Golub

Rabbi Mark Golub

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD — Until 2006, a channel-surfer seeking Jewish or Israeli content on American television would be disappointed with the offerings. That changed in a small but mighty media revolution called Shalom TV, the brainchild of Stamford-based rabbi Mark S. Golub that first launched as a video-on-demand channel and, just five months ago, joined the line-up of live channels on virtually every cable system in the country. Based in Fort Lee, N.J., the non-profit Shalom TV On Demand now brings 24/7 Jewish and Israeli programming into more than 45 million homes throughout the U.S.

Golub serves as president and executive producer of Shalom TV and hosts a number of its news and educational programs. He is also spiritual leader of Chavurat Deevray Torah of Greenwich and Chavurat Aytz Chayim of Stamford. Lauded by Newsweek as one of America’s most influential rabbis, Golub is recognized within American Jewry as a leading interviewer and television producer. His award-winning national program, “L’Chayim,” has aired every Sunday since 1979 with a guest list that reads like a “Who’s Who” of the world Jewish scene.

To honor his contributions to Jewish life locally and throughout the U.S., Golub will be presented with the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County 2013 Heritage Award on Sunday, June 9 at Temple Beth El in Stamford.

He spoke with the Ledger about the pioneering endeavor that is Shalom TV.

 

Q: How did the idea for Shalom TV evolve?

A: I love electronic media. As an undergraduate in the ‘60s, I was general manager of WKCR at Columbia College, a New York City and greater metro station, where I did the longest-running talk show in the college’s history. After I was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1972, I was editorial director and director of public affairs at WMCA Radio in New York City until 1979, when I started the chavurah in Stamford. I was the first assistant editor to Dr. Eugene Borowitz on Sh’ma Magazine, a Jewish magazine for Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and secular Jews engaged in dialog.

In 1979, I merged my two loves, media and Judaism, and created Jewish Education in Media [JEM]. The initial intent was to create Sh’ma Magazine on radio. All the people who used to write for the magazine came on “L’Chayim” to dialog, which created a cross between Nightline and Larry King Live. Since February 1979 and to this day, I’ve interviewed someone in the forefront of Jewish life. The program moved to different radio stations and then to television and then to Shalom TV.

In 1991-92, I created the Russian Television Network, the first Russian-language channel in North America for Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, an experience that taught me how to do ethnic television, and television at a relatively low cost.

I always dreamed to one day expand “L’Chayim” as a Jewish network and to address everything in the Jewish community, to present a panorama of Jewish life. I wanted to do a national Jewish television channel which would allow me to expand my personal rabbinate, and now we’re reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Shalom TV is the culmination of everything I’ve done since I was ordained.

 

Q: What motivated you to create Shalom TV and what did you hope to accomplish at the outset?

A: I consider myself “ohev Yisrael,” a lover of Israel, and I use “Yisrael” in its double meaning: I love the Jewish people and Jewish tradition and everything Jewish, and I think the Jewish tradition itself is the most marvelous articulation of how we can embrace life. Everyone experiences the divine in some way and each people has its own way of expressing that, and I am in love with the Jewish people’s way, with its emphasis on the importance of menschlichkeit. Over time, I have become ohev Yisrael regarding the state and people of Israel, the miraculous reality of the Jewish people living a Jewish life and having a presence and sovereignty in its own homeland. I wanted to excite people about being Jewish and living in the Jewish tradition and let them know why they should be so proud if they are Jewish and respectful if they’re not about Judaism’s incredible accomplishments.

We chose the name “Shalom” because of its meaning: wholeness, inclusion, and as a way to embrace the entire Jewish community. Shalom TV is not the organ of any specific Jewish movement or organization, but it’s about mainstream American Jewry – Klal Yisrael. In addition, the “Shalom” extends beyond the Jewish community, to those who are not Jewish but who want to learn about Jewish tradition and the Holy Land.

I set out to use the most powerful communicating tool in the world to communicate and teach and inspire and help people connect with the core of Jewishness – Jewish tradition and the State of Israel.

 

Q: What is Shalom TV’s definition of “Jewish television?”

A: Shalom TV is entertainment, but mixed with educational and news programs, like PBS. We’re not the only one doing Jewish television now. Once Shalom TV succeeded, others tried their own brands. The Jewish Channel is a paid documentary movie channel, and a corollary to what we’re doing. Another channel from California airs old shows with Jewish hosts – Jack Benny, Dinah Shore, David Susskind. To me, that’s not what Jewish TV is. Soupy Sales was a Jew but wasn’t doing a Jewish kids’ program. It’s a different idea for what Jewish TV is, but I believe that the more Jewish stuff that’s on American television, the better it is for the Jewish people.

If a Jew does it, does that make it Jewish culture, or does there have to be Jewish content? Is Arthur Miller, who is clearly a Jewish playwright, doing Jewish theater? After the Fall tackles a Jewish theme; Death of a Salesman is written about a Jew, I believe, and even The Crucible has a Jewish theme, even though it’s based on the Salem Witch Trials. But that doesn’t mean that every Jewish playwright or author is creating Jewish culture unless there is something inherently Jewish about the theme of their work.

Others say that it’s not about the content but rather about the artist. I had a long conversation on Shalom TV with Deborah Dash Moore and Nurith Gertz, editors of the 10-volume Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. Cartoonist Al Hirschfeld is included and I asked them why they thought he belongs in the book. They said that he was a great cartoonist and that they chose his drawing of Bette Midler for inclusion. I knew Al Hirschfeld and he was not a committed Jew or involved in Jewish life; he didn’t draw Bette because they were both Jewish – he drew a lot of people, and that doesn’t make it Jewish culture; it’s American culture by a Jew.

I say it’s not black and white and everybody has the right to come down where they come down.

Jewish TV is a program with a Jewish theme, not any program created by a Jew. The Goldbergs has a Jewish theme; Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life doesn’t. I just interviewed Joan Benny, Jack Benny’s daughter. I love Jack Benny, but did he do a Jewish show? Even though he had a ‘Jewish soul,’ it wasn’t a Jewish show.

 

Q: How would you define the tone of Shalom TV?

A: We cover the AIPAC Policy Conference every year, and broadcast it live for the first time in March. On the last day, we were walking out and I was stopped by a woman who explained that she’s a Jewish professional and loves Shalom TV and what she appreciates most is how “sweet” a channel it is. I work very hard and consciously to create a sweet channel, one that is open to and embraces everyone.

It’s not a “left” or “right” channel – but it’s about understanding the great Jewish insight “elu v’elu:” both these opinions and those opinions are right, nobody is ever completely right, and you can learn even from those you disagree with. Right now, America does not embrace that notion. Instead, we have conservative, liberal, right, left, Democrat, Republican labels, and everyone demonizes the other. Those both on the Jewish right and the Jewish left have something important to say and they should dialog with each other and Shalom TV is the place where that happens.

We provide news and information about the Jewish world and we cover every major Jewish address and event along the eastern seaboard. The Daniel Gordises and Alan Dershowitzes and Bret Stephenses and Daniel Kurtzers and David Harrises and Malcolm Hoenleins – all these people who are the most brilliant articulate people, and the most brilliant rabbis, are all on Shalom TV, and together represent an attempt to elevate the Jewish spirit and connection. We have Jewish studies, learning Hebrew and Talmud; lectures from the Shalom Hartmann institute in Jerusalem; “Mysteries of Kabbalah;” Jewish children’s programming…

I want people to be well-informed and understand the complexity of Israeli society. I believe that, from every human standard, Israel is among the best societies, those that are trying to implement a vision of real humanity, democracy, goodness, and freedom, and are always working out how best to achieve that. But we are living in a time of academic and other criticism against Israel that is wholly unfair. Even people who love Israel often can’t articulate an effective answer to those wanting to delegitimize Israel. Shalom TV gives them answers they can use if they find themselves in a discussion with someone who disputes Israel’s legitimacy. It is not simply the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli life is a multifaceted, extraordinary blend of activities and adventures; it is the center of innovation, the “startup nation.”

If you have a live channel, you never know who will flip through and find you. We air From Date to Mate, a scripted reality show that follows Jewish singles around New York City as they search for that special someone, like a Jewish-themed Sex and the City. We call ourselves a “PBS-style channel;” anything you see on PBS, we have a version.

 

Q: Who does Shalom TV reach?

A: I get emails every day from viewers that move my soul: a 30-something in Nashville who hasn’t had anything to do with Judaism since his bar mitzvah and is now inspired to join a synagogue and maybe marry a Jewish girl; people making aliyah and wanting to convert to Judaism.

We live in a time of real crisis where the Jewish future is seriously threatened. There are Jews who know they’re Jewish but can’t touch the why and they are craving a sense of connection to the Jewish tradition and people. Every human being has a gift and every rabbi has a gift and one of the things I wanted to do – and I say this without false humility – was to help articulate the genius of the Jewish tradition in a way that makes it intelligible to ordinary human beings who happen to be Jewish. In this regard, I see myself as a teacher. I love to teach the whole panorama of what it means to be Jewish. All over America, there are Jews who are desperate to connect to a Jewish community and television is a wonderful window into anything a producer can imagine.

So many people want to know about us; we have many more phone calls and emails coming in every day than going out – requests to interview certain people or cover events, and calls for expertise on items in the news. I’m proud that we’ve created something that is meaningful to people, giving them a better understanding of themselves, their Jewish tradition, and their connection to the State of Israel.

 

The 2013 Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County Heritage Award honoring Rabbi Mark S. Golub will be held on Sunday, June 9, 4 p.m., at Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Road, Stamford. For more information call (203) 321-1373 x150 or email heritageaward@optonline.net

 

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com

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