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Morley Safer on Gefilte Fish, Observing the High Holidays, and Visiting Auschwitz

An excerpt from ‘Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish’

Abigail Pogrebin
May 20, 2016

In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about Morley Safer, the Canadian-American broadcast journalist best known for his tenure as a reporter on CBS‘ 60 Minutes, who died on Thursday at the age of 83.

MORLEY SAFER, the seventy-four-year-old, wizened newsman, is reclining on a well-worn leather couch in his handsome carriage house, smoking the cigarettes he’s never quit, and sipping coffee he can’t do without—even on Yom Kippur. “I’m not a total hundred percent faster as I once was,” he says with a smile. “I do have coffee. I need it. Giving up coffee would be cruel and unusual.” Aside from caffeine, fasting is not a hardship. “I never eat breakfast anyway and not much of a lunch,” he explained. “But I remember the agony of it as a kid. I mean, agony.”

He and his wife, Jane, are not observant, but they do go to synagogue each year. “Then we go for a long walk. I think the sheer disengagement, even if one didn’t go to synagogue, does make you think. Which is hardly a punishment once a year, and in fact, may be a bonus. It’s not exactly wearing a hair shirt or flogging your back or climbing one thousand steps on your knees.”

Safer grew up in Toronto, where he experienced some anti-Semitic incidents he prefers not to talk about: “I don’t want to go into all that,” he says, stubbing his cigarette out in a large ashtray.

His family observed a modified Shabbat—attending Saturday services, then a matinee. The only holiday he still celebrates without fail is Passover. “We’ve been doing it for the last thirty-odd years, since Sarah was born,” he says, referring to his only child, who is thirty-four when we talk. “It’s an interesting, really jolly mix of people.” Not all the guests are Jewish. “I think it’s about evenly split,” Safer says. “And the most insistent ones—the ones who start calling weeks before, saying, ‘We haven’t been invited yet’—tend to be the non-Jews.” He chuckles.

For the traditional meal, the Safers order their gefilte fish from Rosedale Fish and Oyster Market on the Upper East Side—“it’s the oldest fish market,” Safer tells me, as if that should be obvious to any true New Yorker—but he’s still in search of the perfect lump of pike. “I’ve yet to find gefilte fish that is as close to the one my mother made,” he says wistfully.

Sarah was sent to Hebrew school, he says, so that she’d be equipped to spurn Judaism with intelligence. “You’ve got to know what you’re going to reject,” Safer says. “You should not be allowed to reject something without learning it first.” Today she is non-observant. “It was her choice,” he says. “Would I like her to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur with us? She has once or twice. But I can’t impose—she’s a thirty-whatever-old woman. As a young woman she kind of rejected it, probably more strenuously than she does now. She has a son—our first and only grandchild.” Sarah’s husband is a Russian Jew, but they chose not to circumcise their son. “I would have wanted it because it’s such an ancient tradition,” he says. But he didn’t pressure her. “There’s nothing more destructive than that.”

The Safers never celebrated Christmas, and I ask if he has any reaction to Jews that do. “I find it a little alien, but I’m not a tyrant on these things. I find excessive Christmas stuff kind of gives me the willies anyway. And I hate Christmas in New York because of what happens to the city. I mean, you can’t get a cab, the weather is lousy—you freeze your ass off, and there is no joy in it. I love the idea of it—the idea of charity and all of that.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he continues. “At the office, you always get presents for the people you work with around the holidays. I’d been doing it for the thirty-three years I’ve been at 60 Minutes; I always give a couple of very good bottles of wine, or one very good bottle of wine and one very good bottle of spirits or malt. And it was just fascinating: One year, it was at the height of the homelessness crisis, and I said to my staff, ‘Look, I have a thought: What I would love to do is go and buy food and gloves and scarves. And we’ll distribute the stuff and then all go and have a nice supper together.’ They looked at me like I was crazy: ‘What? That’s the worst idea you ever had.’ I was devastated,” he says with a laugh. I tell Safer they probably couldn’t stand the idea of giving up their malt liquors. He nods. “Here I am, engaging this holiday with the kind of heart that you’re supposed to have. And people were appalled.”

The doorbell rings. “That’s our dog coming back from her walk,” he says, looking suddenly like a thrilled little boy. “Come here, Dora! We have a houseguest! Dora!” Dora runs to Safer and they canoodle each other. “Hello, my little lady; here’s my sweetie pie,” They clearly have a mutual admiration. I try to pat her casually, despite my complete awkwardness with animals, and think of the right thing to say. “She’s so clean,” I manage.

“She likes you,” Safer says with a smile. “She loves loving. I warn you.” After some genuine ardor from her owner, Dora pads away, ostensibly to seek a second breakfast.

As Safer fetches a bottle of Pellegrino water from the open kitchen, I ask him whether he thinks being Jewish has affected his reporting in any way. “I think, after all these years, and having spent a lot of time covering Middle East wars and covering Israel between the wars, you really are able to detach when you do this work.

“But I remember the first time I went to Auschwitz—it was probably in the fifties. I was working for the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], doing a half-hour documentary on Poland. This was after the food riots—late fifties, early sixties—and the full horror had really been revealed. That was just one of the most powerful moments in my life. The camp hadn’t been museum-ized yet; it was in many respects not much different from how it was left.

“And it was also very powerful the first time I went to Germany, which was even earlier. I remember getting off the plane in Frankfurt and hearing that sound of the guttural language.” He pauses. “And you think, ‘There but for a few years . . .’—this was 1954 as opposed to 1944—it’s not that much time.”

So, would Safer say that his Jewishness is a significant part of him? “Oh yes,” he responds. “It’s who I am. I think it’s an important part mainly for what many people may regard as secular reasons, though I don’t think they’re entirely secular. That is, I think it leads to a more contemplative kind of life. I think it gives you a very, very clear idea of ethics, which I’m not suggesting I may practice. But I certainly have a clear idea. Which is why I never understood why they go through this charade now of teaching ethics. You can’t teach ethics. You have to be a zombie not to know the difference between right and wrong. I think that a Jewish background does give you a very, very strong sense of doing the right thing.”

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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.