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Interviewing The Interviewer: A Conversation with Jewish Press Staff Reporter Elliot Resnick

Elliot Resnick

Elliot Resnick

Elliot Resnick has been conducting interviews for The Jewish Press for more than six years now. Along the way he has parried with an impressive range of characters: from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to Governor David Paterson, Professor Alan Dershowitz to Cantor Sherwood Goffin, MK Danny Danon to Ambassador Yehuda Avner.

Resnick has collected five dozen of his best interviews in book format. Called “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books), the collection includes updates on nearly every interviewee plus several questions that never appeared in The Jewish Press.

The Jewish Press: How does it feel being interviewed as opposed to the one doing the interviewing?

Resnick: It certainly isn’t my customary position.

Why did you decide to publish this volume?

Over the years I’ve received some very nice feedback on my interviews, and I thought to myself: Why not put them together under one cover so that people can access them whenever they want?

Also, though I obviously don’t agree with everything my interview subjects say, I do find a great deal of their answers fascinating and thought-provoking. Take Rabbi Meyer Schiller, for example. He is a baal teshuvah and Skverer chassid – he wears the full regalia – and yet passionately believes in Torah Umadda, which is the philosophy of Yeshiva University, where he teaches. I wanted to share his unique perspective, and that of so many others, with a wider audience.

Who is the most interesting person you interviewed?

It’s hard picking a favorite. It’s much easier for me to highlight personalities who introduced me to whole worlds I knew next to nothing about. CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv, for example, taught me much about the history and methods of the Mossad; Cantor Sherwood Goffin initiated me into the world of chazzanus – trust me, it’s a lot more fascinating than you might imagine; Efraim Zuroff educated me on Nazi hunting; and Dr. Paul Kengor introduced me to Frank Marshall Davis, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA who mentored President Obama in his younger years.

So no favorites?

Not really. I admit, though, that I do have a soft spot for dreamers. Dr. Ari Greenspan, for example, thinks his organization, Ptil Tekhelet, has identified the chilazon and wants all Jews to wear techeles on their tzitzis like they did in ancient times. Rav David Bar-Hayim wants to restore what he calls “Eretz Yisrael Judaism.” In other words, now that half of world Jewry lives in Israel, Rav Bar-Hayim believes we should start paskening based on the Yerushalmi rather than the Bavli.

One final example would be Lenny Solomon of Shlock Rock. I admit that before I interviewed him I thought he was just a businessman who loved classic rock and pop. If you had asked me beforehand whether the man had any depth, I would have ventured “no” as my guess. I can’t tell you how surprised I was. He is extremely sincere and idealistic. He truly believes that his music brings Jews closer to Judaism and will bring Mashiach. I asked him about the propriety of setting Jewish words to non-Jewish music, and he started giving me marei mekomos.

I’m still not sure I agree with him, but he certainly is the real deal.

How do you prepare for your interviews?

I do a lot of research. If I’m interviewing a person about a book he wrote, I usually read the book, or at least enough of it to ask intelligent questions.

Otherwise, Google is my best friend. I honestly don’t know how people functioned in this business before the Internet. It’s usually a trove of information and always gives me gist for the interview. Of course, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. If someone you’re interviewing says something unexpected or interesting, you follow up on that.

The interviews in this book include several questions that didn’t appear in The Jewish Press. Can you give an example or two?

I actually called up Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe Feinstein’s son-in-law, before the book was published to ask him for further clarification on his father-in-law’s stance on Chalav Yisrael. He’s adamant that regular milk is completely muttar and says Rav Feinstein’s children and wife drank it. He also said that many American rabbanim permitted regular milk even before Rav Feinstein wrote his famous teshuvah.

Another question that didn’t appear in The Jewish Press is in the interview with the ever-controversial Dr. Marc Shapiro. He’s known for critiquing the haredi world but this question ironically has him criticizing the Modern Orthodox community for not being terribly interested in learning, or ideas in general. “For many people,” he told me, “ ‘Modern Orthodox’ means having kosher food at a Mets game.”

What was it like interviewing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? Many would consider him the most famous person you’ve interviewed.

The truth is I wish I had had more time with him. I interviewed him a week before Rosh Hashanah and he could only spare fifteen minutes. You’d be surprised how much you can pack into fifteen minutes, though – especially when you’re interviewing someone who stays on point without going off on a million tangents.

The most important question I asked him, I thought, was why he attended the wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate in Westminster Abbey. A lot of people were talking about that and I thought it important that his answer be on record. I searched extensively on the Internet before that interview and couldn’t find a single article, or even blog post, that presented Rabbi Sacks’s stance on the issue.

What did he say?

He told me that every single British chief rabbi for the past 150 years has attended state functions in Christian places of worship. That would include people like Rabbi Nosson Adler [1803-1890], who was a big talmid chacham. One of the rabbis, incidentally, who competed with Rabbi Adler to become England’s chief rabbi was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

In any event, Rabbi Sacks said attending the wedding in Westminster Abbey was a civic as opposed to a religious act, and was permitted due to darchei shalom and eivah.

What would you say to someone who asks, “Why should I buy this book when I’ve already read Resnick’s interviews in The Jewish Press?”

I think people would be surprised at how much they’ve forgotten. In preparing these interviews for publication, I found myself being fascinated by the material. Now remember – I did these interviews! I recorded them, typed them up, edited, and proofread them. But some of these interviews are six years old, and I had forgotten what was in them. I found myself getting a tremendous education and a real dose of inspiration just from rereading these interviews.

In his approbation for my book, Rabbi Berel Wein wrote, “This book will inform, even inspire.” I was very happy he wrote that because I honestly felt the same way in rereading these interviews. So many of the interview subjects stand for a cause and hearing them talk about their passions was invigorating. The ideas they express, the stories they tell, the information they proffer – all of them stimulate the mind.

You’ve mentioned many personalities that appear in your book. Any other notable ones you haven’t mentioned that you think people will find interesting?

Certainly. Rabbi Nosson Scherman from ArtScroll; Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who actually called one of my critical questions “pure nonsense”; Steven Emerson, the terrorism expert; Libby Kahane, Rabbi Meir Kahane’s wife; Marvin Silbermintz, a frum Jew who used to write jokes for Jay Leno; Zev Golan, who talks about Lehi’s revolutionary leader, Israel Eldad; Rabbis Julius Berman and Aaron Rakeffet who tell wonderful stories about Rav Soloveitchik; Rabbi Gil Student, who authors one of the Internet’s most popular Torah blogs; Ambassador Yehuda Avner, who wrote that wildly popular book about Israel’s prime ministers, which is actually is in the process of becoming a movie; and Hershey Friedman, the man who took over Rubashkin’s meat plant.

There are plenty of others I think people will enjoy too.

You said Rabbi Steinsaltz called one of your questions ‘pure nonsense.’ Which one was that?

I asked him about the objection, leveled by some, that he treats the avos and imahos in his books as human beings with flaws rather than saints. I was just voicing an argument made by others and was interested in his response. Rabbi Steinsaltz, however, apparently thought I agreed with this objection and said it’s pure nonsense and that many classical mefarshim look at the avos and imahos as he does.

Incidentally, Rabbi Steinsaltz is my brother-in-law’s uncle. When the interview started, Rabbi Steinsaltz, whom I had never spoken with before, quipped, “Since you are family, you will be biased – either for me or against me.”

What’s your background?

It’s rather eclectic. Growing up, I attended Yekkish, Litvish, Lubavitch, and Modern Orthodox schools. How’s that for variety?

I currently live in Washington Heights and belong to KAJ, which of course is a historic German-Orthodox community. I also am enrolled in Yeshiva University’s Ph.D. program for Jewish History. Don’t ask me, though, what I plan to write my dissertation on because I don’t know yet. I hope it will have something to do with the realm of ideas, though, because social history is not my thing.

Your parents also possessed interesting backgrounds.

Yes, my mother was born to a Sephardi family in Bulgaria, graduated Hebrew University in Israel, and later moved to New York where she worked as a producer for PBS and NBC. While at NBC, she decided to take a trip around the world and wound up encountering Chabad in Brazil which inspired her to become frum. She’s still very active in various Jewish causes and is a popular lecturer.

My father, a”h, grew up in Chicago in an Orthodox Ashkenazi family and as a boy would receive individual volumes of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Chumash as birthday presents. My father actually wrote a work on the etymological comments in Rav Hirsch’s Chumash which he completed shortly before he died. In late 1977, after graduating Northwestern University and serving as a U.S. army doctor for a couple of years, my father came to Crown Heights to serve as the physician of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had suffered a heart attack.

That’s where he met my mother. The rest, as they say, is history.

What are your future plans?

For now I plan on continuing doing what I’m doing. I already have at least two interviews for the next volume of Movers and Shakers under my belt – political commentator Charles Krauthammer and former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. We’ll see what other famous personalities cross my path in the future.

Editor’s note: Elliot Resnick’s book is available on BrennBooks.com and Amazon.com; in select bookstores; and through The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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One Response to “Interviewing The Interviewer: A Conversation with Jewish Press Staff Reporter Elliot Resnick”

  1. You're an equally fascinating subject, Elliot. Enjoyed reading about the person on the other side of the table and am convinced that one day you too will be labeled a "mover and a shaker."

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