Jeff Jacoby is proudly and identifiably Jewish. Very Jewish. He's also a widely read newspaper columnist.
"But I try to be careful not to be 'The Jewish Columnist' at the Boston Globe," the former Clevelander says during a recent phone interview.
The caution was born eight months into Jacoby's stint at the Globe when a reporter at a weekly newspaper asked why he writes "so many Jewish columns."
"At that point I had written maybe four or five that you could call Jewish issues - on Yom Hashoah. Chanukah," recalls Jacoby, 39, adding that there are about 200,000 Jews in Boston. "That was my first realization that when it comes to Jewish topics, a little would go a long way."
Still, when Jacoby has something to say about so-called Jewish issues like the Middle East, for example, his fingers hit the keyboard. He's developed a thick skin during the four years he's written his twice-weekly, politically conservative column at the mostly liberal-staffed Globe.
Fully aware that the politics of many Jews tip toward the left, Jacoby acknowledges that he isn't spokesman for the Jewish community.
"I'm not concerned about the perception of Jewish readers," says Jacoby, who grew up in South Euclid, graduated from the Hebrew Academy and attended Young Israel of Cleveland (Orthodox). "I'm concerned about the perception of non-Jewish readers. I want to be sure that when I write about Israel, issues in the Jewish community, or something having to do with the Jewish religion that it gets read and taken seriously."
In these columns, he often draws on his own experience as an Orthodox Jew, as well as on his spirituality. One column on Yom Hashoah, for example, became a tribute to his father, Mark, a Holocaust survivor. In a touching piece about goodness that Jacoby wrote to his son Caleb, then just 16 days old, the columnist again recalled his father's Holocast experience: "Auschwitz is what happens when parents don't train their children in goodness."
The sage Ben Zoma, prophet Micah and Rabbi Akiva also appeared in the Caleb column.
"Whenever I write something Jewish-related a little trickle of antisemitic mail comes in," Jacoby admits. "When I write about the Holocaust, denial mail comes in."
Although he's widely read now, Jacoby, a graduate of George Washington University and Boston University Law School, never set out to be a newspaperman. Disillusioned by the law, however, Jacoby returned to Boston just 10 months after passing the Ohio Bar. There, he founded and ran the still-viable Pioneer Institute Think Tank, a free market-oriented public-policy research organization noted particularly for its annual "Better Government Competition."
As a hobby, he sent opinion pieces to newspapers across the country. And to his surprise, some were printed. To his greater surprise, he got paid for some of them.
"Basically I wrote long letters to the editor venting my spleen," he recalls, laughing.
He initially refused an offer from the Boston Harald to become its chief editorial writer because the writing would be anonymous and the pay significantly less than what he was then earning as an assistant to the president of Boston University. A year later, however, he decided it was time to move on and he accepted the Herald's offer.
Some 6-1/2 years later, the Boston Globe hired a new editorial page editor who overhauled the staff and brought Jacoby on board to lend a conservative voice to an overwhelmingly liberal newsrooms.
Since then, Jacoby's conservatism has created quite a stir - both at the Globe and in the community in one controversial column, for example, Jacoby suggests that "it is possible" for individuals with homosexual tendencies, "with the help of friends and religious faith, to live a non-homosexual life."
Some 15 colleagues, both gay and heterosexual, petitioned the editorial page editor. The paper was flooded with letters from outraged readers. Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas wrote an editorial offering a qualified defense of the decision to print Jacoby's "homophobic columns."
The brouhaha further prompted comment from John Leo in the Nov. 17, 1997, issue of U.S. News & World Report Responding to Thomas" assertion that printing Jacoby's piece "was a high price to pay for freedom of the press," Leo wrote, "A conclusion like this about a mainstream and essentially harmless column says less about Jacoby than it does about the hothouse orthodoxy of the Globe newsroom."
But none of the flap bothers Jacoby.
"If I can dish it out, I ought to be able to take it," he says, nonetheless acknowledging that he's had "a few pitched battles with some forces of political correctness around here."
At heart, Jacoby is a family man. He and his wife, Laura, who attend Young Israel in Boston, bring Caleb to University Heights twice a year to visit the columnist's parents, Mark and Arlene.