Wednesday, April 27th, 2011...1:01 pm

Tom Friedman talks to the Jewish World

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Author and New York Times columnist Friedman will receive Minneapolis Talmud Torah’s distinguished alumnus award

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

Tom Friedman is one of the St. Louis Park Jews who went on to renowned careers. Some of the other luminaries from the Minneapolis suburb are filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, Sen. Al Franken, national politics maven Norm Ornstein and classical guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin.

Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times columnist, will return to his old stomping ground on May 15, when he will be honored by the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis as a distinguished alumnus for his lifetime achievement.

The St. Louis Park parochial school also will honor communal leaders and philanthropists Dr. Mort and Merle Kane, for their ongoing commitment to Jewish education, at the annual benefit, which will take place at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka.

In his talk at the Talmud Torah dinner, Friedman will discuss “all the doings in the Middle East… everything that has gone on there [recently],” he said during a telephone interview with the Jewish World from his home in Bethesda, Md. “I was in Tahrir Square [in Cairo] for the Egyptian democracy uprising, so I’ll probably talk about that.”

Tom FriedmanTom Friedman

Does Friedman still remember his Talmud Torah education?

“Oh, I sure do, vividly,” he responded with a laugh. “Big part of my youth. All those days after school — chocolate chip cookies and chocolate milk — for five years. But I remember it fondly. Taught me Hebrew, all the basics; and, even more importantly, forged all those friendships that I still have today.”

Was the famous, globetrotting writer a good student?

“Probably not,” he allowed. “But it did seem to give me a foundation in Hebrew, which has served me well since.”

Friedman, who early on wanted to be a professional golfer (and captained the St. Louis Park High School team), worked as a UPI correspondent in London and Beirut. The New York Times hired him in 1981, and a year later he was appointed as the paper’s Beirut bureau chief. He took his post six weeks before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Friedman’s coverage of epochal events in the Middle East earned him the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for international coverage.

From 1984-1988, he was the Times’ Jerusalem correspondent. During this period, Friedman and his wife, Ann (née Bucksbaum), welcomed their two daughters, Orly and Natalie. The journalist also won his second Pulitzer for international reporting.

In 1989, Friedman’s book on Middle East affairs, From Beirut to Jerusalem, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for a year, won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction, and has been translated into more than 25 languages.

(A reliable source told the AJW that Friedman got “As” in most of his Talmud Torah subjects, but received a “C” in writing.)

Since 1995, Friedman has been the influential foreign affairs columnist for the Times. His most recent book is titled The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

Returning to the topic of the so-called Arab Spring, the extraordinary uprisings that toppled longstanding autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and have shaken the pillars of rule in several other Arab states, Friedman said that it’s an “open question” about how events will unfold in Libya, for example. “I hope for the best, but I’m certainly sober about what the potential is.”

Right-wing pundits have been warning that unrest in certain countries provides an opening for Islamist elements to consolidate power. “I wouldn’t make any predictions, one way or another,” Friedman replied, regarding the course events will take in the region. “I think this is the top of the first inning. It’s very, very early in this process.”

And regarding the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is again erupting in violence, Friedman downplayed the chance of any breakthrough in peace negotiations.

“Not right now,” commented Friedman. “I just don’t think the conditions for a compromise exist, given the people who are doing the negotiating.”

Regarding the heightened tensions on the Gaza-Israel border, Friedman attributed the outbreak of violence to the “loosening of control in Cairo. Hamas probably has less control down the line; and I think we’re seeing some people who would like to use this power vacuum to stir things up with Israel and get Israel dragged into all of this.”

Fans of Friedman’s writing — which apparently has made great strides since his Talmud Torah days — can look forward to his next book, That Used to Be Us. “It’s about America,” he explained about the book he is co-authoring with Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Friedman said that he usually gets back to the Twin Cities twice a year; following the big doings at the Minneapolis Talmud Torah annual dinner, he will return again in September for his St. Louis Park High 40th class reunion.

At the end of the conversation, Friedman said that he was “thrilled” to be honored by his Hebrew school.

“This is still my community; people ask me where I’m from, I always say, ‘From Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.’ It’s still home for me, even though I haven’t lived there for a long time; it’s home because it’s where I grew up, it’s where my best friends still are, and it’s where I have my fondest memories. So I’m so grateful to be going back.”

And he still recalls his Hebrew school teachers: “Mar [Joe] King, Mrs. [Esther] Nelson and Mr. Alyagon, who was an Israeli.”

***

The Talmud Torah of Minneapolis will hold its Annual Benefit on Sunday, May 15 at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka. The program will begin 7 p.m., preceded by a VIP reception at 5 p.m., and dinner at 6 p.m. For information and to reserve tickets, call 952 952-381-3300 or go to: talmudtorahmpls.org.

Also, the Talmud Torah is holding an online auction with all proceeds benefiting the school. More than 100 items are up for bid, including Twins and Vikings tickets, fine jewelry, hotel packages, autographed sports memorabilia and artwork. To bid on auction items, go to: biddingforgood.com/ttmpls. And a raffle with three exciting prizes — a one-carat oval diamond valued at $7,000 from Tesa Jewellers; an iPad2; and a romantic weekend getaway at the Grand Hotel in downtown Minneapolis — will be held; to purchase tickets ($25), call 952-381-3300.

The American Jewish World is the annual benefit media sponsor.

(American Jewish World, 4.29.11)

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