Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Baruch Dayan Ha'emes: William Safire, 5690 - 5770

One could make a compelling case that my writing career took off one Saturday night when my parents received a phone call from a family friend.

"Is that your son in the Sunday Times?" he asked. My parents turned to me with the same question. Without uttering a word, I ran out of the house, hopped into the family car and sped down the street in the (I'll never forget) drizzling rain. I pulled into the driveway of a friend whose parents, I knew, subscribed to the Times (my parents did not) and finding their paper lying unopened on the blacktop, yanked it from its plastic sheath, and rifled through it in search of the answer.

There it was. In the Times Magazine, in the "On Language" column, just below William Safire's byline. My name.

A few weeks earlier, I had written Mr. Safire with a confession: a common phrase I had not previously understood had finally been explained to me, and I was surprised that I had managed to survive so long without being set straight. Mr. Safire dedicated his column that week to phrases that are regularly misheard, and therefore regularly misunderstood.

For a yeshiva boy, with aspirations of being a writer, appearing in William Safire's column, was more than a thrill. It was validation. On that rainy Saturday night, in the dark, on someone else's driveway, I whooped it up like I had just won the pennant.

William Safire, who died Erev Yom Kippur, taught me to love words and to appreciate their power. Moreover, he demonstrated how the right combination of words, arranged just so, could pack a powerful punch. (He would interrupt here, as he so famously did in his column—which was full of tangents, asides, and parentheticals—to point out that the phrase "pack a powerful punch" is cliche and ought not to be used. I know it's a cliche because I Googled it and got over 13 million hits.)

He knew how to connect words in such a way that they danced on the page. His most famous phrase, "nattering nabobs of negativism," which he penned for then-Vice President Spiro Agnew to describe the press corps during the Vietnam era, was the title of a recent post of mine. (Also, incidentally, a cliche by now. Over one million Google hits.)

But for all his seriousness, as a columnist and self-appointed Language Maven, he had fun with words and language. His rules of writing included:
  • Remember to never split an infinitive.
  • The passive voice should never be used.
  • Proof read carefully to see if you words out.
  • And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
  • Don't overuse exclamation marks!!
  • Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  • Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.
I have always maintained that if Klal Yisrael had just a handful of writers who could describe Yiddishkeit—its values, its history, its laws, its magic—in a way that was simple without being simplistic, dignified without being condescending, intimate without being intimidating, we would go a long way to bringing wayward Jews back into the fold.

William Safire never did make it back into the fold, but his daughter did. I met her once at a retreat for baalei teshuvah. One night the phone rang and I had the good fortune of answering it. It was for her.

"May I ask who's calling?" I asked.

"Her father," he answered.

I thought of introducing myself, but decided it wasn’t appropriate. He was looking for his daughter not a fan.

Tehei nishmaso tzerura betzror hachaim.


Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Well done. Thank you for writing this.

Wed Sep 30, 03:11:00 AM  
Blogger Eliyahu said...


Wed Sep 30, 08:11:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

Love it!

Wed Sep 30, 12:09:00 PM  
Blogger Neil Harris said...

Great post and nice way to be Makir Tov.

Thu Oct 01, 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Mon Jan 04, 09:17:00 AM  

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