A personal challenge for journalists covering the Middle East or any region of armed conflict is to avoid losing one’s sense of humanity – defaulting to the sensational, overlooking the personal. For the worldwide readership that has for the past four decades followed news from the State of Israel, Australian-born journalist Greer Fay Cashman represents the finest of this tradition, following the people who make the headlines and focusing on the undercurrents of society.
Known for her keen assessments and nuance, Cashman’s tenure as The Jerusalem Post’s eyes and ears at the President’s Residence has placed her in the front row of the nation’s emerging history, bearing witness to the comings and goings of the international diplomatic corps while taking note of the domestic dances that define successive administrations.
Cashman recently was presented with the B’nai B’rith Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson recently reviewed history from one witness’ perspective.
The Media Line: You’ve said you were not driven by a passion for journalism, but your career is a study of journalistic insight and understanding matched by few. What landed you in the field of journalism? Did it choose you?
Greer Fay Cashman: Because I’m totally incompetent! That’s what landed me in journalism. Incompetence and a lack of discipline. After I left school, I was a kindergarten teacher, but the other teachers didn’t like [my methods] and they created a fuss and they protested. At the time, I was working for Chabad, and their policy was that you don’t deprive someone of an income. So, they said, “What would you like to do?” I was about 18 years old, or 18 and a half, something like that. And I said, “I really don’t know.” They said, “What did you do in school?” And I said, “I was the editor of the school magazine.” They said, “Oh, you want to be a journalist?” So they looked for work for me and they found a job at the Australian Jewish News, but not as a journalist.
I was a switchboard operator in the days when you had to plug things into a switchboard all over the place. I also had to read proofs, take advertisements, compose texts for invitations and that kind of thing.
I had also been in the drama club and I had starred in All My Sons, with the guy that took me to what Americans call the prom, and we call a debut. And he took it for granted that if I was working at a newspaper, I was a journalist. In his first year at university, he was in a play and he wanted me to come and review it, and I was too embarrassed to tell him I’m not a journalist at all.
So, I went, and I wrote the review and I just put my initials on the bottom. The editor knew who had written the story, but the arts and film, and stage reviewer didn’t know who GFC was and kicked up a fuss. Eventually, he got used to the idea and I could actually put my name on anything I wrote, and since I was willing to do almost anything to see my name in print, they used me a lot. That’s what got me into journalism.
TML: You set your sights on reporting from the Middle East in a big way: by seeking out an interview with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. What happened? Did you actually get to Cairo?
Greer Fay Cashman: I got to Cairo because I was honest. I really believe in being as honest as possible. I wrote a letter to the Egyptian president. I didn’t know if it went to the Foreign Ministry or to his office. All I know was that I waited and waited and waited for a reply. I didn’t get one, and figured, OK, nothing will happen. And in that letter, I told him that I was the product of a Zionist family, a Zionist school, a Zionist youth movement. I had been brainwashed and I was sure that there were two sides to every story, and I wanted to hear the other side.
And then a couple of months went by, (in 1964, I think) and suddenly, I got a letter from the Egyptian Embassy in Canberra. It said, following instructions from Cairo, “We are issuing you with a visa.” So, I said, “Jolly good!” I’d never been overseas before. Australia was a long way from the rest of the world, and I didn’t have any money for a trip.
One of my very good friends, knowing how much I wanted to go, came into our house and placed $300 down on the table and said, “You don’t have to pay it back.” My boss [Tony Rubinstein at the Australian Jewish News] very kindly paid for the rest.
TML: What was it like for a young Jewish woman, a journalist at that point?
Greer Fay Cashman: Everything for me was terribly exciting. It was new. Australia was far from the rest of the world. A lot of people still came to Australia by ship. I mean, to fly out was just amazing! I didn’t know anything about flying, and so I hadn’t ordered kosher food, and I kept on refusing food on the plane. When we landed in Hong Kong for refueling, the steward ran across the tarmac and asked who has kosher food from all of the other airlines, and came back with several meals so that I could eat.
So, I got to Cairo, and one of the first things I did was to go to the Government Press Office and here again, they have food. They’re very, very hospitable in Egypt, and there were mountains of ful [a fava bean and olive oil dish] and other Egyptian delicacies.
Every day I was at the Government Press Office, except Shabbat, and they had fresh fruit for me, but in addition to that, they had collected Jewish newspapers from all over the world and they asked me if I wanted to read them. So, of course, all the ones in English, when I had nothing better to do, I had plenty of reading material.
I never got to interview President Nasser, because Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, was visiting at the same time, and he was a little bit more important than I was. A little girl from a Jewish newspaper in Melbourne, you know? So, I never got to meet him.
TML: How large was the Jewish community at that point?
Greer Fay Cashman: I don’t know how large it was in numbers, but they had a reasonably large synagogue, and they had a lovely custom. Everybody ate at the synagogue on Shabbat, on Saturday, and then, at about half an hour before sunset, they sent a child out to pick leaves from a tree that had a very strong aroma, and that’s what they used for a prayer at the end of the Sabbath.
One thing I never got used to, was on Friday nights. I was there for over a month. So, on Friday nights, I could never get used to the belching. To signify that you enjoyed the meal, you had to belch, and you had to belch loud and deep like a volcano, and I couldn’t do it. I mean, I know how to do it, but I could not do it in public.
TML: Let’s go back to Australia, and maybe a different kind of manners. Several Australians impacted your life, [and] your career, especially into getting you into Israel. Who were they?
Greer Fay Cashman: The editor of the Sydney Jewish News – a subsidiary of the Australian Jewish News – left, and so my ex-editor got in touch with me and he said, “Do me a favor and be a stopgap until we get another editor.” Of course, they never got another editor because I knew everything about that newspaper, and how to sell ads, proofread and whatever. While I was in Sydney, editing the Sydney Jewish News, in 1970, Pope Paul VI came to visit. At the time, Sir Asher Joel, who was Jewish, was handling all the public relations for the papal visit. Every ethnic group was allowed to have one representative covering the pontiff. I was the only Yiddish-speaking journalist, so I was invited to join the press corps for the papal visit. I wrote my article in English and in Yiddish and was printed in both the [Australian] Jewish News and the Yiddishe Najes. And I have a photograph with the pope and myself.
TML: How did you get to Israel?
Greer Fay Cashman: Lou Klein, the owner and publisher of the Jewish Times, bought out the Sydney Jewish News. The Jewish Times had a veteran editor, Eve Symon, and Lou couldn’t have two editors running the show, so he said that, while he couldn’t employ me in Sydney, “I know that you are really a Zionist and have been talking for years about going to Israel. Now is the time.”
TML: You mentioned your wedding. How did you meet your photojournalist husband?
Greer Fay Cashman: He wasn’t a photojournalist at the time that I met him. He was an active member of Israel’s Labor party. It was just before the election when Yitzhak Rabin was elected the first time around. My friend Roberta Yares said to me, “It’s your birthday. You’ve got nothing better to do. Come with me to the Labor Party.” I said, “Fine.”
We get there, and there’s this gorgeous hunk of a man with a German shepherd dog. She forgot his name for a moment, and when he saw what happened, he said, “It’s the shortest name in the Bible.” Now, who was thinking in Hebrew in those days? I said, “Hello, Dan” and that was it!
TML: So, we had to come back to The Jerusalem Post, because that’s where you spent many of your years. How did you end up in fashion?
Greer Fay Cashman: Harriet Mouchly at the time was the head of the Jerusalem-based Israel office of Ruder Finn. She needed a press kit in order for Ruder Finn to get the fashion account of the Israel Export Institute. I said I don’t know anything about fashion. Harriet said, “I don’t care. You’ve got a deadline till tomorrow. Put out a press kit.” And I did. I made it all up and they liked it.
The Post had an excellent writer by the name of Catherine Rosenheimer who wrote about fashion and theater. Catherine was ill and Helen Rossi, then the editor of the Jerusalem Post’s women’s page, needed somebody to write up a preliminary to what used to be a very glamorous section, Israel Fashion Week. So, Harriet told Helen, “Yeah, I got a perfect person for you.”
And that’s how I got to The Jerusalem Post. Helen Rossi liked me. I became the director of the [Jerusalem Post] Funds.
Eventually, someone else took it over and I went into journalism proper.
TML: How did the Grapevine column begin? Three columns a week, still going strong is not an easy feat. How do you fill those pages?
Greer Fay Cashman: I do get press releases, but in addition to the press releases… Look, I started out as a field reporter. I’ll always be a field reporter. I prefer to be a field reporter, because you see and hear things that you never get in a press release. So, wherever I can go, I do go. I go to umpteen events at the President’s Residence. There are things that just don’t fit into news, but they certainly fit into a social column, so it’s there.
I started by covering diplomats presenting credentials to the president, mainly because I was too old to go to the army when I came to Israel. I felt very bad about it. I felt guilty because the army is a place where you integrate completely and become an Israeli. I only became Israeli because I married one, but otherwise, it’s very difficult. I mean, I know people, in fact, I have friends, who’ve been here for 20 years who don’t speak Hebrew. So, they don’t want to speak Hebrew. They live in an Anglo ghetto.
Grapevine started because there was a managing editor, a deputy editor, I’m not quite sure what his title was, who didn’t like me. He wanted to get rid of me and did everything he could to get rid of me. I think part of his dislike was hereditary, or contagious rather than anything else, because his patron at The Jerusalem Post was somebody that absolutely was a misogynist.
It started off as two columns on a broadsheet page on the back page of the [Jerusalem] Post, and from that, it just grew, and it went on into the inside pages because the back pages were for people reading in the supermarket while they were waiting to be served. So, they decide to put things that were a little more important than a gossip column on the back page into the inside pages. Then it became a full page, and then a page and a half, and then a page and two halves.
In the interim at one stage, In Jerusalem started out as a commercial paper, and not as an editorial paper. The commercial people liked me, and they made me editor. Then I turned it into an editorial paper.
I put in Grapevine and I was very fortunate, because my husband was a news photographer, and he would telephone me from wherever he was on assignment. He was a freelancer, so wherever he got an assignment in Jerusalem he would phone me and tell me whatever it was in Hebrew, and I would immediately write it down in English. That’s how I got all my news stories. So, I filled it. Actually, there were times I had more news than the daily paper.
TML: What’s your favorite story? Is there one? Is there a single story that you can think of and say, “That is a story that I’ll never forget?”
Greer Fay Cashman: Oh! On one foot! … I think of when I traveled abroad with President Chaim Herzog. No other president before or since traveled abroad for three weeks in one fell swoop and went to so many countries. We went to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tonga, New Zealand – twice, the North Island and the South Island, Australia -twice, Kenya, [and] Fiji. It was unbelievable! You go to a place like Fiji where at the time people were still dressed in native dress, and talked pidgin English, but they had the most sophisticated communication system in the world. I couldn’t believe it. On the other hand, in Tonga people didn’t sit at a table and chair. I mean, today they sit at a table and chair, but in those days, they ate on the ground.
They had a radio station. They didn’t have television stations. They had one radio station that played for half a day. But wherever we went, we found either Jews or Israelis, or Israelis who were Jews, but Jews who were not Israelis. In Tonga, for instance, there was a fax machine. A single fax machine on the whole island. It was operated by an Israeli, and that’s how I managed to send my stuff from Tonga to Jerusalem.
TML: How did you end up covering the presidents of Israel?
Greer Fay Cashman: Judy Siegel, who used to cover the presidents of Israel, got pregnant and went on maternity leave. Judy recommended that I be her replacement. The first president that I had covered for The Jerusalem Post was Chaim Herzog.
TML: So, you think of all of the presidents that you’ve been in front of, and their different demeanor and protocol…
Greer Fay Cashman: Protocol is something that I, coming from Australia, which was a British Commonwealth country, grew up with. Respect protocol, whatever. When I first started working writing at the President’s Residence, the president would walk into the room and I would be the only person who would stand up, and they’d laugh at me. “Why are you standing up?” And I said, “Because it’s the president!” Herzog, coming from Ireland and England, obviously understood how important that was.
TML: And [President] Navon…
Greer Fay Cashman: Oh, [President] Navon was lovely! [President] Navon I covered when I was working for UJA [United Jewish Appeal]. Later, I’ll tell you a lovely Navon story. After he finished being president, and he also was no longer in politics… He used to live down the street on Jabotinsky Street, and I met him one day walking his daughter’s dog. And he said to me, “Do you know why a dog is man’s best friend?” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because he’s not a politician!”
I interviewed him after he stopped being president, when he was in semi-retirement, but he wasn’t even in retirement, because he was head of the Association for the Preservation of Ladino. He was great! He introduced bourekas into the buffet at the President’s Residence because, he said, sometimes ordinary people come and they want to see that the president is also an ordinary person.
TML: Didn’t traits like this kind of cross over into the Peres era or the Rivlin era?
Greer Fay Cashman: Every president was different. I remember when I still worked for UJA, I went to something with [President] Ephraim Katzir, who was a scientist, and he said to the audience that was a UJA audience, “As a scientist, I’ve worked on a lot of research, done many experiments, but I cannot compete with God.” There is no greater creation than a human being.
TML: You came full circle. Herzog to Herzog, what does that feel like?
Greer Fay Cashman: First of all, the second Herzog I have interviewed from time to time in his various capacities. So, it’s not like suddenly coming full circle. Also, he hasn’t settled into the presidential role completely. And he’s obviously different from Rivlin according to the photographs. He has a different style, although he’s very, very fond of bringing up his ancestry and talking about his grandfather who was the chief rabbi. And talking about his father, who before he was president was a member of Knesset, and before that was the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. Before that, he was the military governor of Jerusalem.
President Rivlin loves to say about the first President Herzog, “The first Jewish military governor of Jerusalem in 2,000 years!”
TML: The president’s wives play a very different role in Israel.
Greer Fay Cashman: Aura Herzog used to be considered a snob. I don’t think she was a snob. I think she just had a certain mannerism about her. My best experience of that was, not of the mannerism, but of not being a snob, was when we went to Australia, it was my first trip back in 13 years. She came to the back of the plane where the journalists sat as we were flying into Australia, and she said, “Do you have butterflies in your tummy?”
Now, you don’t expect that. She didn’t put on graces at all. She was really a very, very nice, caring person. So, I got along fine with her. I got along very, very well with Reuma Weizman, who was always interested in child welfare, especially the welfare of the deaf. She was always first to say hello. Before I even managed to say “Boo” to her, she said, “Hello!”
She used to be invited to Israeli Independence Day receptions hosted by the president long after her husband died. She went blind. I would say, “Shalom, Reuma,” and she’d say, “Hi, Greer.” And I would say, “How do you know it’s me?” And she says, “Well, your voice hasn’t changed.”
TML: From when you sent that letter to [President] Nasser to your Lifetime Achievement Award through B’nai B’rith, what are your most historic moments? When you look back in your career…
Greer Fay Cashman: I think… I never got to see President Nasser personally. I think my most historic moments personally were the Yom Kippur War. I covered it on both fronts. It was something that I hadn’t expected. I mean, you don’t plan.
I come from a country that never had a war on its soil since the British takeover. Now I think the most historic moment during the war was when… I was with a Canadian journalist – I just remember his name started with a ‘D, but I can’t remember what it was – and he was a great journalist, and he was also a great finagler. He could talk his way in and around everything. He told lies left, right, and center to get us past security and whatever.
TML: We are getting to the historic moment.
Greer Fay Cashman: We’re getting to the historic moment. So, he and I were driving in the [Israeli] North – because I never had a car, I always had to get a ride with somebody – and we were bombed. Literally, bombed! The ground opened in front of us. He had a tape recorder open in the car, and he was reporting as he was going along wherever we found a public phone. Can you believe this? Wherever we found a public phone, he would call Canada and play whatever he had on his tape: “Live, broadcasting live from the war zone!”
So I, who had never been in a war before, an historic moment. The ground opens up in front of me, and he, without missing a beat says, “I don’t think we’re taking the next curve.” I will never forget that. That is an historic moment, because you are confronting death. Syrian planes are raining bombs down at you, so it’s incredible.
TML: Your father passed away when you were young…
Greer Fay Cashman: My father passed away a week before my 11th birthday.
TML: Was your mother proud of what you did?
Greer Fay Cashman: My mother was terribly proud of me but I never knew until she died how proud she was of me. My mother came to Israel for my wedding. My mother had a series of life-threatening illnesses from the day I was born, and her doctors would periodically give her three months to live, and she said, “I’m not dying until my daughter is married.” And she didn’t. She died a month after I was married.
My best friend packed up all of my mother’s stuff and sent it to me, and everything that I had ever published was neatly filed, clipped, labeled. I could not believe it because I don’t keep anything I wrote.
TML: Has Israel lived up to your expectations?
Greer Fay Cashman: No! Absolutely not.
TML: I can’t even finish the sentence. In what way, Greer?
Greer Fay Cashman: Look, we are brainwashed, and I use that word advisedly, we are brainwashed to believe that Jews are the most moral people in the world. That Israel has the most moral army. Look, by the rules, yes, we are moral, but too many people don’t follow the rules. And that’s the tragic part of it. You find people who cheat you in business, who cheat you in every way possible.
And you can’t understand it, because that’s not what you saw in your country of origin in the Jewish Community, where people kind of, I mean, there were exceptions, but in general, people helped each other, [and] stood by each other. You come to Israel and its dog-eat-dog. You don’t expect it. In some respects it’s improved. People had no manners when I came. Today, if you say please, somebody else will say please.
TML: If you had to do it all over again, what would you change? I’m talking about journalism and finding out where Israel is.
Greer Fay Cashman: OK, if I had to do it all over again, I think I would come at a younger age and try to go to the army. I think that’s very, very important. It’s not that it’s a stain so much on your character but I think that it leaves a hole that you’re missing something that you should have had and you never got to.
I think that is one of the reasons that from the point of view of foreign volunteers, that Tzahal [the Israel Defense Forces] is so important, because they give the most menial tasks in the army to the senior citizens, and they are so thrilled to be a part of it. I think that any new immigrant who doesn’t go into the army is really missing out, so I certainly would have come at a younger age. Or, I would ask the army to have units for older people to do any number of things.
Look, personally, I think that everybody should learn self-defense, because, whether we like it or not, you’ve got, in addition to terrorists, you’ve got Jewish people that rape, that attack, that do all kinds of crazy things. You’ve got racists. You’ve got extremists. People have to know how to defend themselves.
So, where is the best place to learn that? In the army! It doesn’t matter how old you are. Have units per decade, and make people do things that they do in the army. Learn how to use a gun if you need to.
TML: One day, you’re going to give up Grapevine. Who’s going to take it on?
Greer Fay Cashman: I don’t know. Maybe they’ll give up Grapevine altogether. Look, they gave up fashion in The Post, so they may give up Grapevine. When somebody isn’t there to do it… I don’t know of anybody who is envious of Grapevine, who says they would love to [do it]. I know that some of my colleagues think that when I go to all of these events, that I’m leading a glamorous life, but I’m not. I take a notebook. That’s something else that annoys me. I go to a lot of places where there are other journalists where they don’t write a word. There’s never a report.
I once asked a friend of mine who is already deceased, unfortunately – she was the events coordinator of the Israel Museum – she used to put the journalists of the Hebrew press at one of the most important tables. She didn’t bother with me. She put me anywhere. I said to her, “Why do you do that?” She said, “Because, I’m terrified. I don’t want something negative if I don’t.” I said, “They don’t write anything positive either!” She said, “I don’t care if they don’t write something positive. I’m just worried that they’ll write something negative.”
The article was written by Felice Friedson and reprinted with permission from the Media Line