You go your way and I'll go mine
From his home in rural Maine journalist Ron Maiberg looks back at Israel in bitterness and without nostalgia. He misses nothing and no one except for his late friend and mentor, Adam Baruch. Maiberg's documentary on Baruch is being screened tonight as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival
MAINE - Ron Maiberg died in Ramat Hasharon and was reborn in Blue Hill, Maine. The east-facing window of his bedroom is the first place in the United States to be touched by the sun's rays each morning. Well, "bedroom," in regard to Maiberg and his partner of 37 years, Naomi Lees-Maiberg, is a wild understatement. It's more of a broad hall, crafted entirely of wood, and also a lounge with sink-into armchairs opposite a huge television screen. Adjacent are a bathroom and two walk-in closets - Ron's is more crowded, with notable distinction in the boots section. Like the entire house, this room too is decorated with works by Naomi, who is a painter and illustrator, as well as posters and family photos. It's padded with colorful rugs.
Below is a basement, above an attic. I spent an entire day in this charming place - Ron and Naomi are the perfect hosts - before discovering that the kitchen, living room, library, dining room, study, laundry room, second bathroom and also the three bedrooms, the guest room, the walk-in closets and the second-floor bathroom are only half the house. Not counting the barn, of course.
This is the house that Yair Lapid - who has never been invited to visit - called "a cabin in a remote place with two goats and a bear." Lapid has good reason to be sore at Maiberg: Maiberg cited him as one of the reasons he left Israel.
The day before we arrived in Maine, after an eight-hour journey from New York, a black bear had ambled through the front yard, breaking the bird feeder. In the backyard I saw a doe and her "Bambi," who froze in its tracks before bounding back into the woods. Occasionally a flock of wild birds crossed the lawn, but there wasn't a goat to be seen. There is, though, a cat that answers to the name Vito - for Vito Corleone, of course - that the Maibergs brought from their former home, a house with a pool in Ramat Hasharon. The Maibergs' present home - wood, painted white, perched on top of a hill, built in 1830 and spectacularly restored - is surrounded by a 25-dunam (6.25-acre ) lawn that stretches into woodland (Naomi cuts the grass using a riding mower ). In this place, once part of Sedgwick and now a suburb of Blue Hill, itself only a small town, Ron finds it hard to rustle up a single person who will watch the World Cup with him. Americans are baseball and football folk, but Ron is still a soccer person.
Maiberg's film about his friend, the journalist, art critic and essayist, Adam Baruch, will be screened today, as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival. The 75-minute documentary, "One of His Kind," was produced by Noam Shalev and Highlight Films and edited by Maiberg and Boaz Lion in Maine. "This our third time co-editing a film," Maiberg says. "Boaz comes here each time. As you yourself know what a hole of a place this is, I take that as a privilege of which I am not unappreciative."
Do you like living in a hole?
"I am happy with my lot, I have a good life," Maiberg told me in a pre-interview phone call. Hearing this, my first impulse was to rush to the window to see whether wolves were feeding with lambs and the End of Days had come. After all, Maiberg made a 30-year newspaper career out of groaning and moaning (and also, of course, out of an extraordinary writing talent ). There were years when, to judge by his columns, one might have feared that the Creator gave him organs only so that they too could be afflicted with various aches and pains. So I went to Maine to see for myself the wonder that is Ron Maiberg circa 2010 - the mellowed-out model. "When I read what people write about me in all kinds of places," Maiberg said on the third day of our ongoing meeting, "I look at all the superlatives and ask myself: How can it be? If I am so outstanding and important, how is it that I couldn't land a job with any newspaper in Israel?" Maiberg's personal conclusions are that one shouldn't work as a journalist past the age of 50, and that those who do otherwise are the exceptions that prove the rule.
He was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism in Israel. In other words, of us all. The genre left its imprint on him when he lived in the United States during his 20s. It was part of his attraction, since childhood, to all things American. Since both of us are veteran journalists, our paths crossed several times, and he wrote at least three times as much as any other prolific journalist. Rumors were rife at Hadashot, the now-defunct daily newspaper, about Maiberg's fantastic salary. He was paid by the word and wrote at least four pieces for the weekend edition and an average of one a day on weekdays.
"I checked and found out that no other journalist in Israel even approached the insane number of words I wrote," he says. "That's why I needed so many painkillers," he adds, referring to his addiction to Percodan, which he documented extensively in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir.
People called you a graphomaniac."
"I was a graphomaniac and a drug addict. Someone did the math and figured out that the words I wrote in my life would fill at least 100 fat volumes. But I never understood the craze for literature; my only interest was in journalistic writing."
Maiberg began his career as a teen correspondent for Maariv's youth magazine. At the age of 16, he was mentioned in the press when the lyricist-playwright-writer (and father of Aviv ) Yehonatan Geffen came to Blich High School in Ramat Gan to interview him and a friend. It was after they had organized a strike to protest the principal's demand that they cut their hair. Maiberg still sports the same hairstyle, although it is graying now and balanced by a deliberately unkempt beard. In his youth, the hair made him look like a rebellious hippie, whereas now it gives him the anachronistic appearance of someone who, as Naomi says, is stuck in the 1970s.
At 28, Maiberg became editor-in-chief of Monitin, a glossy monthly that signaled the advent of the New Journalism in Israel. Later, at Hadashot (published from 1983-1994 by the Schocken Group ), he wrote an acclaimed political column together with Amnon Dankner. Maiberg went on to become a senior writer at Maariv and, with Zipa Kempinsky, the co-editor of its weekly magazine. From the moment Dankner became editor-in-chief of Maariv, he says, his life at the paper became agony. He was fired, rehired and then left Israel. At the request of the new editors-in-chief, Doron Galezer and Ruth Yuval, he began writing a column called "Written on Ice" and articles with American themes. After his salary was cut for the second time he said good-bye to both Maariv and the print media.
About six months ago, he launched a website (www.theothermag.com - Hebrew only ). Content is accessible to paying subscribers only, and it is not dependent on a publisher or on advertisers. That's also why it's in trouble and could bankrupt Maiberg, who is bankrolling the whole thing himself. (Among the content on the site are eight chapters from a book he wrote whose main character is a Mafia-style publisher called Bambino. )
Maiberg hired 25 writers, promising to pay $100 per article. "But two weeks ago," he says, "I informed them that the site was in dire financial straits and that I might not be able to continue to pay them for articles. Fortunately - it can't be taken for granted - they all wrote me that they'll continue to write for free." But he does have to pay the site's administrator and its graphic designer. He has yet to attract 1,000 subscribers, the break-even number. "Yet at the very beginning, about 150 subscribers signed up and paid up front, even before the site was launched," he says.
Maiberg grew up in Ramat Gan, not far from Adam Baruch (originally Baruch Rosenblum ). Maiberg's father, who owned a bakery, was a third-generation Israeli; his mother was from a well-connected family from Krakow. Ron's maternal grandfather, Yosef Stieglitz, an art dealer with a famous art gallery on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, introduced Maiberg and Baruch. Baruch considered himself Stieglitz's student with regard to trading in art and Judaica, and eventually worked for him.
Maiberg and Naomi Lees met in a Nahal paramilitary unit at Kibbutz Yad Hannah. Her father was a professor of linguistics, her mother an artist, and she had immigrated to Israel as a teenager. Maiberg was drawn to her family's home, which unlike his own was filled with books, records and art.
Naomi completed her army service a year before him and went to San Francisco to study art. Maiberg joined her and enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute (whose students included the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the photographer, Annie Leibovitz ). They lived in happy penury, in closet-sized apartments, Naomi relates. In the middle of it all, they went to Israel to marry. "It would be hard to say that a great friendship sprang up between our parents," Maiberg says. "They came from different cultures, different worldviews. My father came to talk to them about a home for the newlyweds and they had no idea what he wanted from them. In America, you get a kick in the butt at 18, which is undoubtedly a better system," says Maiberg, who is paying rent, tuition fees and living expenses for two of his children, Emanuel, 24, and Avner, 22, who are studying at American universities. The third, Anula, 28, is a teacher, photographer and Pilates instructor who lives in New York.
Maiberg's final project at film school was one of 10 documentaries nominated for the Oscar that year. He was accepted to the American Film Institute, "the most prestigious film school in America," he says. "But a month after we moved to L.A., my father fell ill and I decided to return to Israel. He died a few months after we returned, at the age of 55."
Maiberg has now outlived his father by one year and he thinks about death a lot. In the past few years, some of his closest friends have died. Most recently, Adam Baruch, who died in May 2008 at the age of 63. Maiberg, who considers himself a sickly type, had always been positive that he would die before Baruch despite being eight years younger. They had agreed, he says in "One of His Kind," that Baruch would deliver his eulogy. But now, "after Adam died I don't feel like dying anymore," he says in the film.
They looked alike, about the same height and weight, and both favored blue denim and boots. "When Adam went abroad, he sometimes bought ten Ralph Lauren shirts, five for him and five for me." But despite the jeans, the boots and the fact that both figure prominently in the history of New Journalism in Israel, they had very different personal styles.
"Adam smoked and drank; I never did," Maiberg says. "He had his way with women, I never did." (Ariela Shavid, Baruch's first wife, and their children, the journalist Amalia Rosenblum and the television personality and screenwriter Ido Rosenblum, refused to cooperate with Maiberg on his film. Baruch's widow, Shira, who is raising their young son, also refused to cooperate. )
Baruch tended toward brevity. He actually invented a new style of newspaper writing that reached its zenith of expression and influence in the weekend magazine of Yedioth Ahronoth, which he edited and rewrote entirely in "Baruchian." Maiberg says he is incapable of brevity.
"Adam hated food; he ate to live," Maiberg says. He himself is a former dread-inspiring restaurant critic and gastronomical tyrant. Even now, in Maine, his only friend is Max, who owns the local coffee, wine, cheese and pasta shop.
Baruch was a central figure in the Israeli art world as a critic, curator, the head of Tel Aviv's Camera Obscura School of Art and as an editor who discovered some of the most important photographers working in Israel today. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, Rabbi Yitzhak Wachtfogel - "and I am sure that if [Adam] ever had a business card, which he didn't, it would have given 'Rabbi Wachtfogel's grandson' as his main occupation. Nothing was more important to him than a single remark by his grandfather," Maiberg says.
By the time that Maiberg's own grandfather, Stieglitz, introduced him to Baruch, the latter had already forsaken formal religious observance and was studying law. "Adam admired my grandfather's sense of humor, his knowledge, his deep understanding of Judaism, his Yiddishkeit," Maiberg recalls. "But they were also in competition over who could come up with the most enigmatic statement. Adam was a champion at that, and also at making people feel puny next to him. If something could be explained at three levels, he always chose the fourth." While he was still studying in San Francisco, Maiberg began writing for a journal edited by Baruch. When he and Naomi returned to Israel, Baruch offered Naomi a job as illustrator at Monitin, while Maiberg wrote for and was the assignments editor at the monthly.
The men developed a close friendship that was based on Maiberg's worship of Baruch as well as the fact that Baruch, who did not drive, needed a chauffeur. "I always had a big car and was hired," Maiberg says.
And that's how you became friends?
"To this day I don't know what being a friend of Adam's means. He wasn't the kind of friend you go to a movie with. But I brought Adam into my life just a few months after my father died, and if there was a Freudian slip and I called him Abba instead of Adam no one got upset, on top of which the difference between 'Adam' and 'Abba' in terms of the sound isn't great. I think he saw a sort of inner, cultural and perhaps, I say this cautiously, class bond between us. He had a thing about his aristocratic background, and there was a certain sanctity regarding his grandfather which is not foreign to me as a grandson, either." A year and a half after they began working together, Baruch resigned as editor of Monitin and recommended Maiberg to replace him. From New York, where he stayed for six months, Baruch sent Maiberg his reaction to the 51st issue of Monitin, Maiberg's first as editor. "It was an express letter," Maiberg recalls. "I sat in my car and read the shocking letter in Adam's handwriting. 'What do you think you're doing? Why did you run a piece about this person and not that one?' I sat there, my hands shaking. Afterward, I thought that maybe the letter was written under the influence of drugs. But at that moment, it was a miracle that I didn't hook up the exhaust to the car window. To this day I don't understand what it was all about, but it was a letter that stood on its own, solitary. It had no continuation. I kept it for some time, until I felt that it was like asbestos, emitting radiation." Back in Israel, Baruch joined the staff of the now-defunct newsmagazine Koteret Rashit and in short order moved to Yedioth Ahronoth.
Old and irrelevant
Baruch moved, together with Dov Yudkovsky, to Yedioth's arch-rival, Maariv, when the latter was acquired by the tycoon Robert Maxwell. It was a short-lived stint, which ended when Maxwell drowned and the paper was bought by the Nimrodi family. The new publisher and managing editor, Ofer Nimrodi, fired both Baruch and Yudkovsky. At the request of Haim Baron, Baruch was the editor of the Globes financial daily for a brief time before he returned to Maariv. In a weekly column, a new Baruch emerged, one who strove to connect the ancient Jewish halakha, religious law, to modern life. The rabbi's grandson turned himself into a rabbi for nonobservant Jews.
Maiberg, meanwhile, was thriving at Maariv. The first project he and Kampinsky produced as editors of the weekly magazine was an 18-page spread on Adam Baruch.
Eventually, Baruch despised Ofer Nimrodi, but they were once best friends. So much so, Maiberg says, that he persuaded Nimrodi to bring his good friend, Dankner, then at Haaretz, over to Maariv. A few years later, after Dankner became editor-in-chief of Maariv, he fired Maiberg, calling him "'old, boring and irrelevant,' even though I am a few years younger than he," Maiberg says. "He kept repeating that I was boring the readers, and he also chose to do it when I was at the nadir of my life, destroyed and broken by my attempt to kick the painkiller habit. That lasted a year and was definitely the hardest year of my and my family's life."
For years Maiberg had needed increasingly greater amounts of Percodan, eventually taking more than 20 pills a day, prescribed for his migraines by his physician and good friend, Shlomo Segev. Segev, Maiberg and Yossi Ginossar - a former top official of the Shin Bet security service who became active in the Labor Party and who was allegedly involved in handling Swiss bank accounts for Yasser Arafat - were a close-knit trio of bon vivants. They even came up with a name, "the limping shrimp club." Ginossar's death from cancer, along with the deaths of Maiberg's friends, Haim Baron and the artists Meir Agassi and Michael Segen-Cohen, are among the principal reasons for his sense that life is too short to waste time trying to reinvent himself in Israel. To this list of people who died too young he adds the songwriter Eli Mohar, the artist and cartoonist Dudu Geva, the journalist Yisrael Segal, the writer and editor of Haaretz Magazine Udi Asheri - all of whom died in their 60s - and, of course, his greatest influence, Adam Baruch. "When people ask me about the movie about Adam, I say it's a film that was made under divine providence," Maiberg says. "It was simply impossible to tolerate the thought that I would not make a film about him."
Before leaving Israel, Maiberg made a three-part television documentary, "All the Way Home," in which he takes his leave of Israel, of his dream of being a working journalist there and of his friends. Of the two years that preceded his departure from the country, he spent more than a year and a half of them sick in bed.
As for Baruch, in his final decade he continued to write his weekly column and to write books that interpreted secular matters in the spirit of halakha But for someone with his energies, this amounted to forced idleness. His television efforts were unsuccessful. His body language was problematic and his language not always comprehensible, Maiberg says.
Maiberg's detoxification efforts led him to far-reaching insights. "Naomi's sister had a summer home in Maine, and Naomi always said that when we retire she would like to move there. When I got out of bed I reached the conclusion that there is no need to wait for retirement. I looked at Adam's life and saw what lay in store for me, too."
Is that what Dankner did to you?
"I wouldn't give him the honor. Did he make me get totally fed up with life in Israel? Absolutely. Just as Yair Lapid did. I think that everything people said about me, from vilification to dissatisfaction, built up inside into some sort of feeling of non-Israeliness. A sort of outsiderness, a disconnection."
And here you feel that you belong?
"It's not a question of feeling that I belong. My home is where my family is. I don't know how to define it in any other way."
And how is it all connected to Yair Lapid?
"I was the first one who realized, and warned about this three or four years ago, that he intends to enter politics. People like him, who have an agenda, who know from the moment they emerge from their mother's womb what the agenda is and how to make it happen, who have no enemies and no naysayers, who manage to get a foothold in the press and in advertising and in politics, as though the rules don't apply to them, people like that really scare me. I was afraid that my children would live in a country ruled by Lapidism. Besides, I ask, since when did being uneducated like Lapid become a positive value?
"As I see the situation," he continues, "Israel is at the most critical crossroads in its history, not to say maybe the last one, heaven forbid. In such a critical situation, the fact that a person who holds such a powerful position decides not to take sides and pull for a better direction, is worse than masturbating in public. When you look at [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, at least you know what you're looking at. But with Lapid you don't know what you're getting.
"There are other signs, too. Smoking Cuban cigars without removing the band is the height of declasse. I didn't want my children growing up in a Lapid state, even way back when he was a young television presenter. It all connects to Adam, of course, and what he called 'the terror of mental retardation.' How sad and ironic that Adam's own son has become a representative of that phenomenon."
The phone doesn't ring
The Maine summer is magnificent. The air is cool, the skies are azure and the trees rustle in the pleasant breeze. But in the six-month-long winter, Maiberg says, "Cabin fever turns out to be not just an expression. It's brutally cold out and there's light for maybe four hours a day. And in the hunting season you have to wear a neon-orange hat if you don't want to be mistaken for a deer and shot. The winter is really rough, but I like it because it's an excuse to do nothing, to curl up and stay inside for hours." (He seems to do the same in the summer. )
Maiberg contributed mightily to his eventual unemployability in the Israeli media. Everyone he trampled on the way up returned the favor on his way down. "I would rather have my telephone not ring in Maine than not ring in Israel," he says. Resting his case he asks me, "In your two days here, how many times have you heard the phone ring?" In truth, one time. It was Naomi's sister.
Is it hard for you to endure the quiet here?
"No. I like my anonymity here. I am still very happy that I have no history and no past in this place."
Occasionally he makes a sortie to San Francisco, where Emanuel, an assistant director on his father's movies, is a film student. He visits New York, too, though it's increasingly losing its charm for him. "After a few days in New York I start to lose my sanity," he says.
Still, much of his past hedonism remains. In New York, at a wonderful (and wonderfully expensive) restaurant to which we were invited by one of Maiberg's fans, meeting him in person for the first time, they had a long and, to me, totally perplexing conversation about wines: good vintages and the best places to buy by the case. "But I no longer have the urge to buy everything that exists in New York," Maiberg says.
He had been in Maine three years when Maariv editor, Galezer, called to tell him that Adam Baruch had died. "I feel fortunate to a very high degree, which I can't quantify, that for a certain time, at a very important part of my life, Adam was part of it. It's hard for me to imagine my life, or how it would have turned out, without him. I will always feel that I didn't have the time to repay him for his friendship. In the months of his illness, I didn't spend a minute's thought on how I would translate the looming disaster into creative work, because the idea of his dying was inconceivable to me. But the instant Doron Galezer woke me in the middle of the night I knew what I had to do the next morning."
Baruch died in the hospital where he spent the last three and a half months of his life. The apparent cause was complications from diabetes and, according to some people, a severe streptococcal infection. "All my attempts to find out how Adam died, and from what, failed. One way or the other, it was a death that was totally inappropriate for Adam," Maiberg says. "His death should have been a lot more heroic. Maybe he should have been swallowed by a printing press."
What death suits you do you think?
"I have no idea."
Doesn't the nature around you here make you see things in a different perspective? Do you like nature?
"It doesn't bother me. Besides, what kind of question is that? There is a terribly funny thing here, the most brutal people you can imagine want to come here in October to see the leaves change color. Do people assume that if I don't utter orgiastic moans then I don't see it? I'm not a very expressive person, you know. Why should I have to be thrilled by the deer? I've seen them and it really is a pretty sight. And don't I know that everything here is watery and green? And if I'm already being put on aesthetic trial, why isn't the fact that I chose to live here a point in my favor? If I were to write 200 words about the colors of the leaves, wouldn't you think I should be sent for a CT scan?"
Sorry. I always thought of you as a city type. You wrote a lot about New York. You were a restaurant critic.
"You can interview the greatest people and write the most incredible stories, and you'll always be remembered as a restaurant critic. As for the city thing, that was never true. No one ever caught me sitting drunk in bars in Tel Aviv. The only thing I ever wanted was to get back home to my wife and children."
What were your expectations from the website?
"None. I never do anything with forethought. All I thought was that I would set up a website at my expense. It'll be great fun. I admit that my attempt to manage a site that deals with culture, society and leisure failed to a certain extent because the writers were preoccupied with Israeli current events."
Is there anyone who's mad at you for leaving the country?
"There was a period at Maariv when, with the whole talkback [website readers' comments] culture, I discovered that people were very angry with me. If Israel is such a wonderful and good place, why are you angry at those who have stopped sharing all this bounty with you? From where do Israelis muster this fury at Israelis who decide not to live with them? Did you love me this much when I lived with you?
"I remember my life in Ramat Hasharon, a full-fledged luxury neighborhood. An hour and a half from the house to the school to drop off the kids - 20 blocks. I remember the tics you get in Tel Aviv - a car backfires, somebody gets shoved and calls you a piece of shit. I get up in the morning and pop over to the supermarket in the Jeep. On the way I pass three streams and, in the winter, also two lakes, and reach a parking lot big enough for three Jumbo jets. At every intersection someone goes crazy trying to give you the right of way. Those mannerisms that Israelis hate so much of 'How are you today, sir?' and "Have a good day,' that politeness, what's wrong with it? I am also by nature not a clingy person. I don't function well in intense situations. So, if someone would explain to me why I am essential at this minute to Israel's situation, and if the approach were formulated with intelligence and emotion, there would be something to talk about.
"I was in Israel during the last election campaign. I have the right to vote but I didn't exercise it. Why should I take part in an election that will decide the nation's fate when I will not be part of the outcome? I have almost completely stopped expressing myself directly about Israel, certainly about left and right, territories and all that bullshit. I don't believe in interference from 10,000 miles away. I spent my 30 years in the media, making my views abundantly clear. I don't understand this dissonance of shit, of why did you leave? And on the other hand, it's so shitty in America. You know, if you want it in the simplest way: I'm sick of it. I had enough of it all." W