Birnbaum v. Birnbaum


By of way of introduction, here's a short bio from one of the websites to which I contribute: "Robert Birnbaum, a bookish journalist, was born in Germany, grew up in Chicago, lived for too many years in Boston. He is editor-at-large at and lives in New Hampshire with a blonde Labrador, Rosie." I'm happy to point out that the "bookish journalist" characterization came by way of an all-too-brief conversation with Cynthia Ozick. One of the pleasures of chatting with the divine Ozick is that we ended up schmoozing away like two cousins at a bar mitzvah. In the course of hundreds of conversations I've had with writers such as Louis Begley, Amy Bloom Neil Pollack, Michael Lesy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Art Spiegelman, Sherman Nuland, Peter Singer, Christopher Hitchens, and Thomas Beller, there are occasionally moments that reflect shared roots and upbringings. For instance, in a chat with Joe Epstein, we discovered that  we both grew up on the North side of Chicago, and soon lapsed into an arpeggio of Jewish banter:

RB: I was talking with my mother, telling her I was going to talk with you, and I told her the title of the book [
Small Fabulous Jews]. Her response was, "Where do you get small Jews?"

JE: Your mother lives in Lincolnwood, so she knows this terrain.

RB: I grew up in West Rogers Park, so I also know it.

JE: What was your address?

RB: 7035 N. Washtenaw.

JE: Oh wow! 6649 Campbell. We have both come a long way. You went to Rogers School. I went to Boone. God, we are from the old country.

RB: This used to be called Jewish geography.

Also, I was not bashful about asking cartoonist and MacArthur Fellow Ben Katchor, “Does it seem to you there are a disproportionate number of Jews in cartooning?” Or exploring the dark and painful subject of anti-Semitism with literary
mishpocha like Eva Hoffman and Deborah Lipstadt.

Now has asked me to, well, interview myself. The conversation took place on the banks of the Squamscott River in Exeter, New Hampshire. To make things easier the interlocutor will be Robert and the respondent, Isadore...

Robert: How did you get into this line of work?

Isadore: Well, I like to talk and I like to read and I am frequently too lazy to sit around and write stuff.

Robert: You’re not suggesting that reading is not work, are you?

Isadore: [laughs] Try to convince my second ex-wife that it’s work. But if you are raised to think that work is onerous and draining, no, reading is not work. And compared to the life of, say, a Central American campesino… Actually, being a journalist is great fun, one of the great excuses to investigate one’s own predilections and obsessions and pretty much contact any one in the known world with impunity. On the other hand, I am somewhat discouraged by a sad consequence of celebrity culture is that sometimes friends and readers say to me, “Wow, you talked to So-and-So,” as though So-and-So were a different life form.

Robert: What makes a good interview? Or, as you like to say, a good conversation?

Isadore: Well, there’s the obvious—as Elmore Leonard put it, “Leave out the parts that readers will skip.” I'm not sure about this, since I rarely re-read after I transcribe and edit, but I think it must be the same as with written stuff—if we are talking about things we care about, I think that readers are drawn to that. I am not sure its about factual information—the kinds of things you get in those brainy interviews in The Atlantic. One thing I lost interest in was having the definitive or even the smart interview. My dialogues are just moments in a given space and time. By my definition, the definitive interview with someone is the very last one. I started out doing interviews—writing out questions and trying to adhere to something fairly scripted. In the course of well over a thousand of these things, my sense of them is that they evolved from Q&A interviews, which are the norm to conversations and in some cases [Socratic] dialogues. Frank Conroy’s last book was a collection of essays and articles called Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now. One of the pieces included was a profile of pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett, who is a great improviser, talks about how, before beginning a concert, he sits at the keyboard and clears his mind of all musical ideas. I have tried to approach my conversations in the same spirit. Though frequently, as I drive to my appointment, I seem to drift to a few questions—maybe like picking out the dominant chord of the composition that follows.

Robert: What’s your favorite/most memorable interview?

Isadore: My most memorable was one I was on the radio doing with [composer/musician] Anthony Braxton. Lightening stuck the antennae and knocked us off the air. As to favorite, I have so many that the word loses its meaning. There are many people I have spoken with a few times, some four and five times over 15 years—Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Fredrick Busch, Amy Bloom, Martin Amis, Chip Kidd—and those reunions have become quite pleasing. Most recently, because for a long time I had wanted to talk with Cynthia Ozick, whom I admire immensely—I chatted with her in the lobby of the Four Seasons, where she was profoundly impressed that someone could charge $12 for a soft-boiled egg—and it was a splendid hour or so. I was greatly complimented that she described talking with me as like talking to a favored relative.

Robert: What’s your favorite color?

Isadore: Unlike fashionistas who are always defining the “new black,” I like black and red (revolutionary colors). See, I know what you are doing here. I have done it myself. I’ve asked Cynthia Ozick and Donna Tartt that question—never thinking I would get more than a joking dismissive reply. The point here is that any question can be a platform for an interesting conversational cul de sac. Not to mention who is to say what will reveal what is interesting about another person? To quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

Robert: Who are good interviewers?

Isadore: Terry Gross, Chris Lydon, David Barsamian, Michael Silverblatt, Keith Obermann. And let me say that Diane Sawyer is terrible and sometimes thoughtlessly vicious, but what can you expect from someone who’s network spends huge resources trumpeting, “The Interview: Brad Pitt”?

Robert: Any tricks?

Isadore: The only thing that is consistent about my talks is that I have at least read and familiarized myself with the most recent work that someone has done and when I am with that person I am quite enamored of them. I guess that kind of makes me like a hooker. Except that I am sincere.

Robert: Who would you still like to interview?

Isadore: Phillip Roth, Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Bob Dylan, Sally Potter, Wislawa Szymborska, Hal Wilner, Agnieszka Holland , James Nachtway (again), Norman Mailer, Imre Kertész.

Robert: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you do?

Isadore: I am always curious about that about other people—not because it reveals much about a person but because career choices can sometimes be tied to a person or an image or event—something fleeting or serendipitous. Our choices can make really good stories.

Robert: What do you call what you do? How do you refer to yourself?

Isadore: In general, I consider myself a journalist. I have concentrated on the literary world because that dovetails with my devotion to reading but also because I have been engaged in a long post-graduate self-education/tutorial. In describing myself with great specificity and, of course, thus obscuring myself—I am a Jewish, Northside Chicago dialogist.

Robert: Any mentors? Heroes?

Isadore: I think my generation didn’t have mentors in the common sense of the word. But as for heroes, Howard Zinn, James Nachtway, Mark Danner, Curtis Mayfield, John Lee Anderson and David Rieff, Studs Terkel, Saira Shah, Christina Rathbone.

Robert: What do you think is important?

Isadore: Besides my son Cuba? I’m partial to a quote from the Kabbalah: “To contemplate truth without sorrow is the greatest gift.” And that I bookend along with T.H. White’s prescription from The Once and Future King: The best thing for being to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

Robert: Anything else?

Isadore: Well, of course, but it’s the nature of a conversation that has to end somewhere so this one ends here, though in a way this is not ended as much as it is an offshoot of all the conversations that I have had and continue to have.