Jonathan Kaufman’s career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor for such illustrious publications as The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News has taken him around the world, covering racism and job discrimination in Boston, political, economic, and social issues in Beijing, and the breakdown of Communism in Berlin. Wherever he has gone, a Jewish story has always seemed to emerge, resulting in the publication of two well-received books on Jewish topics, with a third on the way. As a result, Kaufman was a natural to join the Jewish Studies Advisory Board when he arrived Northeastern last fall as Professor of Journalism and Director of the School of Journalism.
Kaufman grew up on New York City’s Upper West Side, at a time when it was a largely middle-class Jewish neighborhood. Delis were everywhere, he could walk to Sunday school, and his grandmother lived uptown. His father’s family were German Jews who had come to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; part of his mother’s family had immigrated earlier, before the Civil War. His maternal great-grandfather fought in the Civil War first for the South, then for the North; although family lore attributed that switch to ideology, Kaufman believes it more likely that he had been paid to switch sides. His grandfather fought in World War I.
Kaufman grew up heavily involved in Jewish life. His parents had met through a young singles group at their Reform temple and his mother worked at the temple’s nursery school, which she had helped to found. In addition to Sunday school at the temple, Kaufman spent summers at Camp Eisner, the Reform movement’s camp.
After attending public school through the sixth grade, Kaufman enrolled at Friends’ Seminary for middle and high school. It was a foundational period for Kaufman. “It was the 1960s and 1970s and the Quakers were ahead of the curve [in terms of social and political engagement],” Kaufman recalls. “I got a lot of my politics from there.”
From Friends’ Seminary, Kaufman went on to Yale. He started college as a History major and eventually switched to English. Then he joined the newspaper, and he was hooked. “I majored in the Yale Daily News,” he laughs, serving as Editor-in-Chief in his senior year.
After he graduated from college, Kaufman received a highly selective Luce Scholarship from the Henry Luce Foundation. Intended to increase promising young leaders’ understanding of Asia, the program’s main requirement was that applicants know little about Asia when they began. Kaufman was sent to Hong Kong, where he worked for the English-language South China Morning Post.
Landing in Hong Kong at the end of August, Kaufman felt a “primal urge” to go to services when the High Holidays rolled around a few weeks later. He was surprised to walk into a beautiful old synagogue and feel that he was home. It was a powerful lesson. “Jews seem to land in communities very different from where they grew up and make connections,” he observes. “The music, the prayers, the language were all the same. You can always find that family feeling and it’s a great anchor, no matter where you are. That sense of belonging is one of the greatest gifts Judaism gives Jews. You don’t realize when you’re learning for your Bar Mitzvah that it will make you belong later on.”
Kaufman gradually became familiar with the Hong Kong Jewish community, not realizing at the time that it would later become an in-depth research project. He was fascinated to learn that the area’s first Jews were originally from Baghdad, arriving in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1840s with the opium trade. Jews had been instrumental in building much of Shanghai; after 1949, many wealthy Jews had fled Shanghai for Hong Kong, and the community was supplemented by Israelis and other expatriates.
While a Luce Scholar, Kaufman also had the good fortune to enter China as a reporter. It was 1978, just prior to the normalization of US-China political relations, and it was an extraordinary time to be in in the country. Mao had died only two years earlier, and Kaufman remembers everyone still parroting the Chinese leader. It was a considerable contrast to the China he would experience later when serving as the Beijing Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal from 2002 to 2005.
Returning from Hong Kong, Kaufman worked for The Wall Street Journal in Chicago for a year, but he has been “bitten by the Asia bug” and missed studying. He soon decided to return to school and entered a two-year Master’s program in East Asian Studies at Harvard.
After receiving his MA, Kaufman joined The Boston Globe as a metro reporter. In 1984, Jesse Jackson, running for president at the time, visited the paper’s offices. Although accusations of anti-Semitism had already been aimed at Jackson, the issue didn’t really come up during the visit. Kaufman was shocked when Jewish and black reporters nevertheless began screaming at each other. “It was like a family fight at Thanksgiving,” he recalls of the combination of intimacy and hostility that arose. Kaufman knew that Jews had been disproportionately active in the Civil Rights movement. What had happened in the intervening years?
With the support of a fellowship, Kaufman took a year off from his job to attempt to answer this question. He dove into archival collections and interviewed countless Jewish and black veterans of the Civil Rights movement, including the families of James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964; Donna Brazile, who worked on Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1984 and later managed Al Gore’s campaign in 2000; and Jackson himself. The result was his first book, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America (Scribner, 1988), which went on to win the National Jewish Book Award.
Kaufman returned to the Globe shortly before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. He traveled to China that summer to report on the massacre’s aftermath.
Then in November, the Berlin Wall fell. Kaufman was the Globe’s second person sent to report the evolving events. In his six weeks “careening around Eastern Europe,” he was fascinated by what he saw as the bizarre reemergence of Jewish life in the area. Inadvertently, he kept stumbling across post-war Jewish history. Passing an old building with a Jewish star in Prague, he discovered a beautiful old synagogue. On a Friday night in West Berlin, he took a taxi to an East Berlin synagogue, where he found a small, sad room with a handful of German Jews and Jewish expatriates holding a simple service, only to be surprised when the cantor showed him an adjacent beautiful old synagogue that had survived Kristallnacht in 1938. The next day, Kaufman’s wife, Barbara Howard, also a reporter and now anchor of NPR’s “All Things Considered” on WGBH, stumbled into a pro-Communist demonstration led by a Jew, Klaus Gysi. Both Kaufmans met people who had found out they were Jewish only with the fall of the Wall.
Intrigued, Kaufman set out to discover what had happened to Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain after the Holocaust. His second book, A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish In Eastern Europe (Viking, 1997), is an intimate history that tells this story through the lives of ordinary people in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Covering the pre-war importance of Jews to European life, what had occurred under Communism, and why many Eastern European countries turned so anti-Semitic after 1989, it conveys the richness of the Jewish experience and embraces the complexity of Jewish identity. A Hole in the Heart of the World was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.
After spending three years in Berlin covering the breakdown of Communism for the Globe, Kaufman went to work for The Wall Street Journal. In 2002, he became the Journal’s Beijing Bureau Chief, rekindling his earlier fascination with the Jews of China. Hearing whispers of Jews in what seemed the most unlikely place in the world, he discovered that many of Shanghai’s beautiful old buildings had been owned by Jewish families. As he began to pull the threads, his current book project emerged.
The work focuses on two families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories. A wealthy family with connections all around Asia, the Sassoons had fled to India. When China opened up in the 1840s, the family patriarch sent his sons to Shanghai, where they dominated the opium trade. The Sassoons and the Kadoories soon became the dominant economic and political force in the area, helping to build modern Shanghai and teaching many of their Chinese employees about capitalism. After the Communists emerged victorious in 1949, the families lost everything. The Sassoons never recovered, but the Kadoories had sent money to Hong Kong and played an important role in rebuilding it.
Kaufman sees much of his work on Jewish topics as revolving around similar themes. “Jews play a fascinating role,” he comments. “They created modernity and cosmopolitanism and they’re hated for it, but others always wanted to embrace it. Jews represent the wider world, and they always end up in the spaces in between.”
After Rupert Murdoch purchased The Wall Street Journal in 2007, Kaufman joined what he calls “the diaspora” and went to work for Bloomberg News, where he spent six years before joining the faculty at Northeastern in the fall of 2015. He had always known that he wanted to teach at some point, and he welcomed the chance to be more reflective and do more long-form writing. Also important was the opportunity to rejoin his family full-time; the family had always been based in Boston, but Kaufman had been living in New York five days each week.
Kaufman has found teaching to be extremely fulfilling. He describes Northeastern students as smart, engaging, and challenging and hopes to make the School of Journalism more outward-looking and to engage with the question of how journalism can best adapt in a rapidly changing environment. A highlight so far has been his new class on “Covering the Campaign,” for which he took students on thought-provoking trips to New Hampshire. He points out that with more than half of his students majoring in subjects other than journalism, educating people to be smart news consumers is also a high priority.
Kaufman also looks forward to engaging with Jewish Studies at Northeastern. He emphasizes that Jewish history has relevance far beyond a narrow field of ethnic studies. “Our history illuminates American history and world history,” he comments. “Blacks and Jews – that history really changed America.”
Read the rest of the Spring 2016 Haverim Newsletter here.