On the Road, Day 4 -- Burlington, Iowa City, ?

We crossed the Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa, a town notable for its newspaper, The Hawk Eye. Its Web site is a mess, its copy average fare for a small broadsheet, and its revenues impressive — I’ve promised its publisher that I’ll not reveal specifics, but suffice it to say that it is profitable by a margin unthinkable in most industries. That is news enough to prompt two coastal dwelling journalists to drop in for a visit.

Why is The Hawk Eye succeeding as other newspapers falter? Its publisher says that it is free of debt, unlike certain prominent dailies. “If we cannot afford something we go without rather than borrow,” he told me. I’d add some observations: Burlington is a small, rural town where the classified section is still more useful than the Internet; on matters of local import The Hawk Eye faces little if any competition; and its readership is sufficiently old that it is partial to print rather than the Web.

As I talked to the publisher, I kept thinking, “Wow, the newspaper trends here are years behind what I’m used to — it’s like the executives in charge of this publication (and several others under the same ownership) are being given a look at the future.” Were I in their shoes, I’d be investing a portion of my profits in Web innovation, hoping that I could apply lessons learned elsewhere in the industry to stave off my eventual demise. But that’s easy for me to say! I’m relatively young, childless, and single.

The publisher of The Hawk Eye is middle-aged, married, and a father of two. A former business editor at the paper, he cares deeply about journalism, and speaks passionately about the civic role played by the newspaper — instances in which it stood up for beleaguered citizens, for example, and the way it serves as the only chronicler of history for the community. As he observes his industry, however, consider his incentives. He might say, “Wow, though we’re quite profitable at the moment, the long term trends for our business are troubling — I’d better hatch some plan to address that, because if I do nothing the eventual demise of this enterprise is guaranteed.” But the impulse passes quickly enough, because why risk a well-paying gig on some untested plan that might not even work, especially when business as usual means another five or six years drawing a comfortable salary? Remember the mockery Michael Kinsley bore after the failed Wiki editorial experiment at the Los Angeles Times op-ed page? Have you ever heard anyone mocked for doing nothing to improve the LA Times op-ed page as it sunk into utter irrelevance?

As we left Iowa, Alex began hunting frantically for a Seder to attend. “Are you sure you’re up to going?” she asked. “Sure,” I said. She explained how there are orthodox Jewish community centers in most cities — as it happened, we wound up at a Seder hosted by the Chabad of Iowa City.

“So you’re sure it’s cool I’m not Jewish?” I asked as we rang the doorbell.

“Yes,” she said. “Be a pretend Jew if you’re worried about it. Also, it’s pretty ritualistic, so it may seem kinda like voodoo to an outsider.”

“I went to Catholic school for 14 years,” I said. (beat) “Is there any etiquette I need to know?”

Some orthodox women don’t touch men who aren’t their husbands — don’t initiate shaking hands.”

Anything else?”

But before she could answer the Rabbi Avremel Blesofsky greeted us. What a friendly man! He gave me a yamaka, assured Alex that she need not apologize for wearing pants rather than a skirt, and introduced us to his wife, who wore a wig to hide her hair from all men save her husband. She tended to three or four kids, socialized, and otherwise kept order among the chaotic assembled believers.

Contrary to Alex’s expectations, the ritualistic parts of the Seder struck me as quite normal. What felt strange to my formerly Catholic sensibilities was the incongruity between painstaking adherence to ritual—suggestive of a holy purpose—and the informality of the proceedings, with the orthodox wife of the rabbi talking over certain prayers, everyone seated around a dinner table rather than standing or kneeling in pews, etc. I’ve neither read about nor seen another Seder, so I don’t know whether this informality amid painstaking compliance is common, but I rather liked it. I always thought, amid the Catholic mass, “So Jesus gathered everyone for the last supper, broke bread, poured wine, and said, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ and this is how generations of Catholics honor that wish — with a formal liturgy, kneelers, and nothing resembling a meal at all?”

I cannot say that I follow all the reasoning explicated in the English translation of the Seder that I read, but overall I very much enjoyed having attended, and I’m grateful a kindly Lubavitch family allowed an outsider to share their table. Indeed, I felt myself to be an outsider, welcoming as they were. Beyond my lack of familiarity with the rituals, observing Jews of disparate backgrounds sharing them afforded a greater appreciation for the cultural bonds that religious practices can confer — and the fact that I’ll never enjoy those bonds.

I wish observant Jews godspeed in their project, and admire the community it creates. But I cannot say that I envy it, nor do I envy that Alex knew her parents would be upset if she didn’t attend a Seder, or that she knows they very much hope she’ll one day marry a Jewish husband.

This is partly due to my own family background. My mother’s ancestry is French Catholic, while my father’s lineage is German Protestant — only the utter failure, on both sides, to enforce cultural traditions and extend ethnic identity enabled my mom and dad to one day meet as something other than a Capulet and Montague. And it is nice to know that if ever I bring a woman home, and say “I love this person — and we’re getting married!” they won’t give a damn about her religious or cultural heritage. That is freeing, and jives with my personality, though I appreciate that others feel differently, and they’re probably right as far as they’re concerned, for loss of heritage carries a cost.

The Seder lasted until midnight, at which time we climbed back into the car, needing to get farther west so that we could arrive on time the next day in Ord, Nebraska. I got pulled over 20 minutes later for speeding on the Interstate. So much for that $150. I felt slightly guilty about failing to drink all four of the required cups of wine during dinner, but I sure was glad I abstained when I saw the flashing lights in my rear view mirror. Despite that transgression, it is my fervent wish that all those celebrating it enjoy a wonderful Passover.