This Day in Jewish History

1925: A Journalist Who Would Write For, and Be Fired By, the Best Is Born

At 15, some kids buy candy. Nat Hentoff organized the candy store workers.

Nat Henthoff appearing on "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley Jr., on the topic "Black Power". Henthoff, shown here,has facial hair and is wearing a dark suit and glasses.
YouTubr screen capture

June 10, 1925, is the birthdate of writer Nat Hentoff, one of the most passionate and eloquent journalistic voices in the English language, particularly when writing about the two subjects that have preoccupied him since childhood: jazz and justice, specifically, civil rights.

Hentoff’s career has had its zigs and zags, particularly in the past decade or two, when his political shifts alienated many longtime admirers. He claims he's remained loyal to his principles.

Nathan Irving Hentoff was born and grew up in Boston, a city today regarded as one of America's most broad-minded, but which he describes as having been one of its most anti-Semitic during his youth. His parents were immigrants from czarist-era Russia: His father, Simon Hentoff, had been born in Wolkowysk, Poland (today Vawkavysk, Belarus), and his mother, the former Lena Katzenberg, hailed from Minsk.

Nightmare to some

In Boston, Simon worked as a house painter, was gassed in World War I, and used his army disability pension to open up a haberdashery, which thrived until going bust in the Depression. But Simon, even when he owned a business, passed on to his son a strong belief in workers’ rights and unions, and backed Nat when, at age 15 or so, the boy organized the clerks at the candy store where he worked, forcing the owner to improve their working conditions.

Hentoff lived in the city’s Roxbury section, a working-class area in South Boston, but starting in seventh grade, he was privileged to study at the formidable Boston Latin School, a public magnet school dating to 1635, where, if one survived academically, it was said that one was set for success in life.

He juggled academic excellence with an obsession for jazz, which began at age 11, when, passing by a Boston music store, he heard a recording of “Nightmare,” by Artie Shaw. Even if he hadn’t later concluded that the song was infused with strains of Hasidic melody, he became such a jazz fiend that any extra money or time he had was spent on listening to jazz. He also had a natural rapport with many of the musicians, which served him well during his decades of writing on jazz.

After college at Northeastern University, a brief dalliance with graduate studies at Harvard, and a Fulbright Fellowship at the Sorbonne in Paris, Hentoff began his journalistic career on Boston radio, broadcasting professional wrestling matches. Soon, though, his expertise in jazz led to his hosting a succession of jazz shows on local stations.

Issues with employers

In 1953, Down Beat, the country’s leading jazz magazine, hired Hentoff as its New York editor, a position he held for four years, until he was fired, he says, for hiring a black woman as receptionist without the owner’s approval. Since then, Hentoff has written for nearly every significant periodical in the U.S. – and been fired from the best of them.

Nat Hentoff on Free Speech, Jazz, and FIRE YouTube

He wrote for The New Yorker about political and social issues, about jazz for numerous publications and in a number of books, and for 50 years, wrote a weekly column about whatever moved him for New York’s Village Voice. He briefly was the content director of a jazz record label, and he has written liner notes for musicians as varied as Bob Dylan and John Coltrane.

In 2008, Hentoff was laid off by the Voice, which was then thrashing about for a new business model. By then, he was already moving to the right. He soon took up a position at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank founded by Charles and David Koch. Although this is not a libertarian position, he became a zealous opponent of abortion, which he insists is complementary to his opposition to capital punishment. He also became a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal (about jazz) and the Jewish World Review (about everything else).

Hentoff has called for the impeachment of President Obama ("the man has no sense whatsoever of the separation of powers"), and was an early supporter of Senator Rand Paul for president in 2016.

His rightward swerve has not included a change of heart about religion: According to Hentoff, he remains “a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.”

Happy 91st birthday to Nat Hentoff!