David Landau: Journalist, Gentleman and the Enemy of Your Ego

Even as he raged against the dying of the light, he basked in the love and affection he could finally see.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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David Landau
David LandauCredit: Alex Levac
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Norman Mailer once wrote: “If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.” As far as David Landau is concerned, Mailer was wrong on all counts.

He was far more talented than a novelist, though he wrote several books; he was much smarter than any lawyer, though he graduated from law school summa cum laude; and his hands were steady as a rock, whenever and wherever he took command.

No matter how brilliant you believed you were, there was always Landau. If you saw yourself as the sharpest of journalists, you could never pass Landau. When you thought you finally knew how to write, edit, outline, headline, formulate, encapsulate or contemplate, Landau was there to prove you had another thing coming.

In word, in deed and by his very presence, Landau was an antidote for arrogance, a cure for pretentiousness, a remedy for conceit. He was an instant reality check, a vanquisher of your vanity, the enemy of your ego. Just when you thought you were perfect, he showed you how far you still had to go.

He lived in parallel and often contradictory dimensions, an insider and outsider at once, a fish out of water who thrived on land, an extraordinary man wherever he went. He was a haredi among secular journalists, an internationally respected editor among the professionally devout, a yeshiva boy and a Talmudic scholar but a master of history, philosophy and current events as well. He travelled in rabbinical circles with the same aplomb that he moved in politicians’ bureaus, and was received with the same mix of reverence and apprehension in both. He was a man of uncompromising principles, towering intellect and incisive foresight: a journalist’s journalist whose integrity, above all, was his middle name.

Landau was the truest of Zionists, a lover of Israel to his core: not only because of his decision to come on aliyah but because he adored Israel and prayed for its welfare each day. His thought of it as a sick patient in dire need of an urgent operation that could save it, but for the shortsighted stubbornness of its leaders. He fought a relentless war for his beliefs and cried with increasing anguish and anger, as his beloved country looked the other way.

I walked in on him unannounced at the Jerusalem Post three decades ago, and he took me in, on a whim and a hunch. He tried to teach me all he knew, which was fantasy, though I picked up enough to get by. Like all of his past disciples and one time subordinates, I too came to dread his infamous dressing-downs and notorious tongue-lashings, often delivered at the top of his voice, for everyone to hear and see. For some it was too much, but others, like me, always came back for more.

We left the Jerusalem Post in January 1990, along with 39 other journalists, in what was the first glorious but ultimately futile rebellion against what has now become the sad hallmark of much of Israeli journalism: owners who think that by purchasing a newspaper they have bought your very soul. We sat for months on end in David’s Jerusalem attic, plotting and scheming and doing what we weren’t cut out for: trying to raise money to start our own English-language daily. We failed, though less than ten years later, David realized our dreams, in a way, by launching Haaretz’s English edition. From there, he went on to become the editor of Haaretz itself, a seemingly mission impossible for an English-speaking, tallit-donning boy from London in the rough and tumble world of Hebrew journalism. He had conquered his Everest, and there was no prouder day in his life.

He was my boss and my mentor, my editor and my colleague, my good friend and my ultimate soulmate. I loved him and I admired him and I reveled in his company, but I was far from alone. Like me, there were many others.

That seemed to surprise him, in his dying last months. He was taken aback by the hordes of well wishers, friends, colleagues and acquaintances, all deeply and genuinely devastated by his malady, as he could very well tell. Even as he raged against the dying of the light, he basked in the love and affection that he could finally see, with his blinding sight.

There are no words to console his truly better half, Jackie, nor their three extraordinary children, Dan, Emuna and Chani. Then again, there are no words to comfort any of his admirers either. He was a proud father and devoted husband, a proud Jew and a devoted Israeli, a friend and a teacher, a journalist and, yes, a gentleman, in his very own way. He was as fine a man as any of us could ever have hoped to meet, and probably the finest we will.

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