Anatomy of a New York Times Correction

Richard N. Weltz
It began on a Sunday morning, April 20, when, as is our usual habit, my wife and I settled back in bed to read the Sunday New York Times which had been delivered to our door.

An article in the "Metro" section particularly caught my eye. Accompanied by a large photograph on the section's front page, it told the story of Bukharan Jews who were doing a thriving  business as cobblers to the Orthodox and Chasidic communities in Brooklyn's Williamsburgh neighborhood.

As I read on, though, some rather  startling statements appeared:

At 7:30 that Sunday evening, he tore himself away from the store to make up for missing the ritual. From beneath the register, he picked up his Torah, the pages black at the edges from repeated flipping by his shoe-polish-stained fingers, and he walked to a nearby appliance and electronics store, where his customers could not disrupt him. As a man in the store perused the boom boxes, Mr. Miyerov opened his Torah and, amid the Cuisinarts and electric toothbrushes, rocked back and forth at the hips, chanting a prayer in Hebrew. 

Quickly to the keyboard, I dashed off an email to the address provided by the Times for correction requests:

Really gentlemen, your reporter or copyeditor (if any) should be more knowledgeable about basic matters of Judaism.
 
The subject would hardly have kept a Torah beneath his register. The Torah is the scroll of the law, normally kept in a synagogue's ark. It has no pages, as it is a continuous scroll of parchment panels; and its surface and edges are not touched by human hands. Miyerov certainly would not have had an actual Torah; nor would he have one with "pages black at the edges"; nor could he have stained the nonexistent pages by "repeated flipping."
 
What Miyerov undoubtedly had, misdescribed in your article as a Torah, would have been a Siddur -- a daily prayer book printed and bound as any ordinary book.
 
A correction note is called for for those Jewish and knowledgeable gentile readers who would be shocked had an actual Torah been stored and handled in such as sacrilegious manner as you depict.

Foolish me, thinking that such self-evident (to me, at least), mistakes would merit a prompt correction notice, especially if the editors responsible asked any even slightly knowledgeable Jew around the office for confirmation of my objections. That was not to be. With no correction appearing after a full week, I took my complaint to the paper's "Public Editor," who bills himself as the "readers' representative" and the person to address on matters such as this. I wrote on April 27:

Mr. Hoyt:
 
The following is a copy of an e-mail I sent to the New York Times editors on April 20, the day the errors mentioned appeared. It is now a full seven days later, and there has been not one single word in the paper correcting these mistakes.
 
As you are supposedly the readers' representative, I would like to know from you what reason the editors have for failing to correct these misstatements which are not only factually wrong but offensively so to the Jewish community.
 
I hope and trust that your responsibilities will encompass getting to the bottom of this, and I look forward to a more meaningful reply than the usual boilerplate. Thank you for your attention.
 
[here followed a copy of my original letter of April 20 to the news department]

This time the response was both swift and challenging, received the very next day:

Dear Mr. Weltz,

Thank you for writing. There seem to be a couple of issues here. One, the lack of response. Where did you send this initially? To what address? I don't remember seeing this.

Second, to the point you've raised. I will pass this to the regional editors but it doesn't seem you have any evidence yet to warrant a correction.

Setting the offensiveness of the idea aside for a moment, your views that the man "wouldn't" have kept the Torah under the register doesn't really qualify as evidence. Do you know the person in question? Were you there that day? What evidence do you have that the information in the article was incorrect?

The distinction, and the  importance in the distinction, between the Torah and the Siddur, is well received and I will ask the editors, but what further information or evidence do you have that specifically refutes the account in the article?

Either way, I will make sure the appropriate person sees your message.

Sincerely,
Michael McElroy
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times
Note:  The public editor's opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.

I'd be less than honest if I said that I didn't find the response insulting to me personally; and I'll admit that -- without regret -- I sent back a rather sharply worded response:

The original message was addressed to nytnews@nytimes.com, which is the address supplied by the Times for messages about needed corrections.


With all due respect, any reasonably knowledgeable Jew in your office will be able to tell you that "proof" is hardly required of the errors I pointed out, which are self-evident.

Could you find a few Jews over there, or have they all, like your publisher, abandoned the faith of their forefathers in favor of the much more fashionable Anglican confession?

Or, you could send someone around the corner to the Garment Center Congregation (40th Street just West of Seventh Avenue), where the rabbi could easily explain why my comment is not as sarcastic as it may sound.

For the Time's sake -- not mine -- I hope you will do the appropriate fact-checking and have corrected the embarrassment that has been caused to the newspaper and its staff.

Perhaps the sharp tone and sarcasm did the trick; I'll never know. Today's edition, however, carried in the "City" section the following short notice:

An article on April 20 about a shoe repair shop operated by a Bukharan Jew in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, referred incorrectly to a book kept under the shop's cash register. It was a siddur, or daily prayer book -- not a Torah, which is a scroll inscribed with the first five books of the Bible and which is traditionally kept in the ark of a synagogue. Go to Article

They say it's tough to argue with people who buy ink by the barrel, but I'm pleased that in this case, at least, the score wound up Judaism 1, NY Times 0.
It began on a Sunday morning, April 20, when, as is our usual habit, my wife and I settled back in bed to read the Sunday New York Times which had been delivered to our door.

An article in the "Metro" section particularly caught my eye. Accompanied by a large photograph on the section's front page, it told the story of Bukharan Jews who were doing a thriving  business as cobblers to the Orthodox and Chasidic communities in Brooklyn's Williamsburgh neighborhood.

As I read on, though, some rather  startling statements appeared:

At 7:30 that Sunday evening, he tore himself away from the store to make up for missing the ritual. From beneath the register, he picked up his Torah, the pages black at the edges from repeated flipping by his shoe-polish-stained fingers, and he walked to a nearby appliance and electronics store, where his customers could not disrupt him. As a man in the store perused the boom boxes, Mr. Miyerov opened his Torah and, amid the Cuisinarts and electric toothbrushes, rocked back and forth at the hips, chanting a prayer in Hebrew. 

Quickly to the keyboard, I dashed off an email to the address provided by the Times for correction requests:

Really gentlemen, your reporter or copyeditor (if any) should be more knowledgeable about basic matters of Judaism.
 
The subject would hardly have kept a Torah beneath his register. The Torah is the scroll of the law, normally kept in a synagogue's ark. It has no pages, as it is a continuous scroll of parchment panels; and its surface and edges are not touched by human hands. Miyerov certainly would not have had an actual Torah; nor would he have one with "pages black at the edges"; nor could he have stained the nonexistent pages by "repeated flipping."
 
What Miyerov undoubtedly had, misdescribed in your article as a Torah, would have been a Siddur -- a daily prayer book printed and bound as any ordinary book.
 
A correction note is called for for those Jewish and knowledgeable gentile readers who would be shocked had an actual Torah been stored and handled in such as sacrilegious manner as you depict.

Foolish me, thinking that such self-evident (to me, at least), mistakes would merit a prompt correction notice, especially if the editors responsible asked any even slightly knowledgeable Jew around the office for confirmation of my objections. That was not to be. With no correction appearing after a full week, I took my complaint to the paper's "Public Editor," who bills himself as the "readers' representative" and the person to address on matters such as this. I wrote on April 27:

Mr. Hoyt:
 
The following is a copy of an e-mail I sent to the New York Times editors on April 20, the day the errors mentioned appeared. It is now a full seven days later, and there has been not one single word in the paper correcting these mistakes.
 
As you are supposedly the readers' representative, I would like to know from you what reason the editors have for failing to correct these misstatements which are not only factually wrong but offensively so to the Jewish community.
 
I hope and trust that your responsibilities will encompass getting to the bottom of this, and I look forward to a more meaningful reply than the usual boilerplate. Thank you for your attention.
 
[here followed a copy of my original letter of April 20 to the news department]

This time the response was both swift and challenging, received the very next day:

Dear Mr. Weltz,

Thank you for writing. There seem to be a couple of issues here. One, the lack of response. Where did you send this initially? To what address? I don't remember seeing this.

Second, to the point you've raised. I will pass this to the regional editors but it doesn't seem you have any evidence yet to warrant a correction.

Setting the offensiveness of the idea aside for a moment, your views that the man "wouldn't" have kept the Torah under the register doesn't really qualify as evidence. Do you know the person in question? Were you there that day? What evidence do you have that the information in the article was incorrect?

The distinction, and the  importance in the distinction, between the Torah and the Siddur, is well received and I will ask the editors, but what further information or evidence do you have that specifically refutes the account in the article?

Either way, I will make sure the appropriate person sees your message.

Sincerely,
Michael McElroy
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times
Note:  The public editor's opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.

I'd be less than honest if I said that I didn't find the response insulting to me personally; and I'll admit that -- without regret -- I sent back a rather sharply worded response:

The original message was addressed to nytnews@nytimes.com, which is the address supplied by the Times for messages about needed corrections.


With all due respect, any reasonably knowledgeable Jew in your office will be able to tell you that "proof" is hardly required of the errors I pointed out, which are self-evident.

Could you find a few Jews over there, or have they all, like your publisher, abandoned the faith of their forefathers in favor of the much more fashionable Anglican confession?

Or, you could send someone around the corner to the Garment Center Congregation (40th Street just West of Seventh Avenue), where the rabbi could easily explain why my comment is not as sarcastic as it may sound.

For the Time's sake -- not mine -- I hope you will do the appropriate fact-checking and have corrected the embarrassment that has been caused to the newspaper and its staff.

Perhaps the sharp tone and sarcasm did the trick; I'll never know. Today's edition, however, carried in the "City" section the following short notice:

An article on April 20 about a shoe repair shop operated by a Bukharan Jew in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, referred incorrectly to a book kept under the shop's cash register. It was a siddur, or daily prayer book -- not a Torah, which is a scroll inscribed with the first five books of the Bible and which is traditionally kept in the ark of a synagogue. Go to Article

They say it's tough to argue with people who buy ink by the barrel, but I'm pleased that in this case, at least, the score wound up Judaism 1, NY Times 0.