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Don Hewitt on His Judaism

The ‘60 Minutes’ creator died today at 86. For the book ‘Stars of David,’ he talked about his religion.

Abigail Pogrebin
August 19, 2009
Hewitt and his wife, Marilyn Berger, at CBS’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2003.(Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)
Hewitt and his wife, Marilyn Berger, at CBS’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2003.(Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

To work for 60 Minutes creator and executive producer Don Hewitt, which I did for six years as a producer, was to work alongside an inimitable character who seemed quintessentially Jewish. Don’s manic energy—his hopping up and down about stories that grabbed him, his undisguised dismay at stories that didn’t, the way he’d yell “Hi honey!” when he charged by you, or repeat the same joke he’d heard to every person he encountered in the hallway, the way he’d exhort you to get an interview or give you a wink when you “did good”; his Brooklyn lilt, his histrionics, his dated fashion sense, his unflashy routine—made him feel familial to me despite his eminence within CBS. He was a cheerleading but demanding Jewish uncle.

But in the strict sense, Don couldn’t have been less of a Jew. He observed no holidays (one could always find him at work on Yom Kippur), and he demonstrated zero emotional connection to Jewish identity. “I’ve always felt more American than Jewish,” he says, sitting behind his desk in his trademark camel turtleneck, snug tweed blazer—handkerchief peeking from the pocket. “Let me put it this way: Am I proud to be Jewish? Not particularly Am I happy to be Jewish? Yes! Because I think somewhere somehow it gave me the impetus to be ambitious. I’m proud of what I did at 60 Minutes, but I’m not proud of being Jewish. I’m happy about it. I think being Jewish is nifty. And mostly I’m Jewish by temperament” What does he mean by that? (I have my own ideas.) “I like Jewish food, I like Jewish humor, I like Jewish people. But I’m more at home with nonbelieving anybody; including nonbelieving Jews. I’ve always taken to the nonbelievers”

He grew up in New Rochelle, the child of Frieda, a German Jew, and Ely, a Russian Jew. “I stayed home from school Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but at Christmas I got Christmas presents. I was confirmed at a Reform temple called Temple Israel mostly because that was the social thing to do in that town.”

He goes on: “My grandfather changed his name from Hurwitz to Hewitt long before I was born. In fact, we used to kid around in the family because they said my grandfather wanted to change his name to Hurley, which is Irish. My aunt tells this great story of being at my confirmation with all the kids’ names printed in the program, and overhearing one woman say, ‘Donald Shepherd Hewitt? How did he get in here?’”

Does he think he brings any of his Jewishness to his news judgment? “Yeah, but not consciously. I think what I bring Jewish is called seckel [a Yiddishism for “brains, savvy”]. Jews have got seckel. I think that’s what I bring.”

Hewitt’s Jewish credentials were harshly called into question when 60 Minutes did several stories in the seventies and eighties that were perceived as overly sympathetic to the Arab point of view. There was a deluge of protest in 1975, for example, when Mike Wallace reported that Syrian Jews weren’t as oppressed as had been previously believed. The criticism from some in the Jewish community culminated in Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, then president of the American Jewish Congress, requesting a face-to-face meeting with Hewitt and Wallace in their CBS offices. Hewitt says Hertzberg went after him subtly but personally. “The son of a bitch,” Hewitt recalls, “he came over here to see me and he sat in my office and he said, ‘Hewitt… Hewitt…; there’s got to be a Horowitz under there somewhere.’” Hewitt smiles. “I said to myself, ‘You son of a bitch; you come here for a peace meeting and you make trouble.’

“Now the other hysteria was when we did the Temple Mount massacre.” He’s referring to Wallace’s 1990 story recounting the killing and wounding of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers at Jerusalem’s sacred Temple Mount. The Anti-Defamation League was up in arms, charging that the broadcast “failed to meet acceptable journalistic standards” and that Wallace “gave the false impression that Israel is engaged in a deliberate coverup.” Then-CBS president Larry Tisch, a prominent Jewish figure in New York society, got involved. “Larry went ape about this story,” Hewitt says. “I was portrayed as a self-hating Jew and I said to him, ‘You’ve never met a more self-loving Jew in your life! I don’t hate myself! Secondly, if I did, it would not be because I was Jewish.’” But the personal attacks clearly left their mark. “I remembered that for a long time,” Hewitt says.

Another snub: “I went to a party once at Werner LeRoy’s [the flamboyant restaurateur], and I got attacked by Mort Zuckerman [real estate and publishing magnate] and Barbara Walters, who said, ‘How could you do that story at this terrible time in Israel’s history?’ And I said, ‘How about the stories we did at the terrible time in America’s history in Vietnam? Were you worried about that?’ I was shocked. And I said, ‘I get accused of being a self-hating Jew because I’m critical of Menachem Begin. Nobody ever called me a self-hating American because I was critical of Richard Nixon.’ There’s a thing about Jewishness….” He trails off. “Right now the Jews are too big and too smart to cave in to this feeling that we are victims in the Middle East. They’re not really victims in the Middle East.”

Hewitt heralds the fact that Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, ultimately wrote him a letter apologizing for the ADL’s outcry over the Temple Mount story. “He said—I’m just paraphrasing here—‘Now the verdict is in: It looks like it happened a lot closer to the way you guys said it happened than the government said it happened, and we owe you an apology and I invite you to use this letter any way you want.’”

Hewitt is even prouder of another letter—one that used to sit framed on his office bookshelf. “It’s wrapped up somewhere—I can’t find it,” Hewitt apologizes as he hastily leafs through his memoir, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, looking for the place where he quotes the letter, sent in honor of his seventieth birthday. Hewitt reads part of it aloud, in a hushed tone. It’s perhaps his most compelling piece of evidence that he wasn’t such a skimpy Jew after all:

“… As you know, your program is critically acclaimed throughout the world and is held in high esteem by many of us in Israel. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my personal gratitude to you for dedicating one of your 60 Minutes segments— the tragic story of our Israeli Air Force navigator, Ron Arad. Both as a Jew and a human being, I was touched by your coverage of his plight. I am deeply grateful to you and 60 Minutes for all your efforts. As you enter your 25th year at 60 Minutes, I wish you the best of luck and continued success in the future. Sincerely, Yitzhak Rabin; Prime Minister of Israel.”

Hewitt reads the signature with solemnity. “That letter is one of the proudest things I’ve got,” he says. “I think the terrorist who did the most harm in this world—more than Al Qaeda—was the Jewish terrorist who killed Rabin.”

More on Israel: “I always admired Israelis. They were the gunslingers. They were great! Before it was politically incorrect to think about it that way, it was like the cowboys and Indians—Israel were the cowboys and the Arabs were the Indians and it was simplistic; I never knew anybody who rooted for the Indians. I always thought the Israelis were arrogant as hell, but I admired them. But I never understood why the smartest people on earth plunked themselves down in the most hostile place on earth. They could have found a better place. They could have gone to Madagascar or something. But they say, ‘It’s the land that God gave them.’ Who the heck knows what God gave anybody?! How do they know that? I think it would be a big loss to civilization if Israel disappeared. I just wish they’d get off all this jazz about ‘God gave us this land’; God didn’t give you the land—you took the land and you made it great! And I love you for doing that, but don’t tell me that God gave you this land and he doesn’t want anybody else here.

“I’ll tell you my favorite phone call: One time, a woman called after we aired a story on Israel. And she said, ‘I’m getting sick and tired of you people.’ I said, ‘Okay lady, what now?’ She said, ‘You’re all pro-Israel, and you’re all a bunch of kikes.’ I said, ‘On your first point, you couldn’t be more wrong; on your second point, you could be right.’ And I hung up on her.”

Excerpted from Stars of David by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.