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NPR Host Scott Simon: Riding on Airwaves

Reprinted with permission from Hillel Campus Report, a monthly e-mail newsletter available for subscription at www.hillel.org.

October 18, 2006

Photographs of his wife and daughter compete for scarce shelf space in the cramped office of National Public Radio broadcaster Scott Simon. Simon points to a shot of his wife, Caroline, and adopted Asian daughter, Elise, in a restaurant in Munich. His daughter looks every bit the proper Bavarian girl in her knitted German sweater.

"Some of the diners asked us what we were doing in Munich," Simon relates. "My wife told them that we were in Germany to research my next novel which will be set in Dachau. She explained that this is a very important subject to us because 'We are a Jewish family.' Well, their eyes widened and I thought their jaws were about to hit the table. They just did not know what to make of us, this French woman with an American husband and Asian daughter. They never saw anything like it."

Photo © Will O'Leary 2005

Being a Jewish family is very much on the mind, and the broadcasts, of Simon these days. On a recent program, Simon offered a commentary on raising a Jewish-Chinese child. "My daughter's Chinese class was cancelled last week because of the Jewish holiday. Only in America," he began.

Simon does not hesitate to discuss his life on his weekly show, "Weekend Edition Saturday." It's a part of the personal, engaging, descriptive style that sets his reporting and his show apart. The winner of numerous awards, Simon joined NPR in 1977 as chief of its Chicago bureau and has anchored "Weekend Edition Saturday" since 1986. As of Arbitron fall 2005, the program is on 606 public radio stations across the country and has a weekly listenership of more than 4 million.

The show is a blend of news, commentary and features that seem perfectly paced for relaxed, weekend listening. "We have to report breaking news … but we can take a broader perspective on events that is a little bit more long-lasting," Simon explains.

Children's writer and illustrator Daniel Pinkwater, a frequent "Weekend Edition" guest, describes Simon as "without question the best-liked person on NPR, admired and looked up to by his professional colleagues and trusted by the audience. He is as nice a guy as he seems to be on the air."

With a career that has spanned decades and continents, a slew of professional awards to his credit, and three books under his belt, is there one particularly rewarding story or moment that validated his decision to enter journalism?

"Fortunately that happens every now and again," Simon responds.

But pushed to choose, he mentions NPR's decision to assign the "Weekend Edition Saturday" staff to do its overnight coverage of the attacks of September 11.

"Overnight coverage was particularly important then because there were so many people who had taken to the roads because airplanes had stopped flying," he said. "And just the terrible hurt that we sustained as a nation--I think a lot of people were looking for that kind of companionship and I'm glad that we were there. We also did a totally live, six-hour show on Saturday that I think was one of the greatest things that we ever did on this network."

Simon would not encourage students to follow him into radio journalism, or any other career, for that matter.

"I don't want to give out career advice," he says. "I do think it's important to find something you can do that you enjoy doing, that you can believe in, and that has worth for people. When you find it, the work will seem like work but it will rarely seem like drudgery. You will be able to learn from everything that happens to you, even your mistakes. You will feel a sense of commitment to what you do, which I think is irreplaceable and energizing. You will feel proud of what you do and of your life."

He is equally reluctant to single out just one "meaningful Jewish experience." However, one Seder provided a revelatory moment. "It was just a few days after we brought home our daughter from China. We were reading the story of the Exodus and thinking about Moses, the little boy cast aside in the bulrushes. Looking at our little girl, it was just more powerfully emotional than I can state. You realize all over again that this story is not for one time and place but it's for eternity. These stories keep happening all around us and our little girl is a part of it."

Simon fears the day when his daughter will ask why all the adopted Chinese children are girls. "How do you explain a society that casts away young women?" he asks. "We want her to understand that Judaism teaches that you cast away no one, that the entire community cares for everyone."

Simon values Judaism's devotion to social justice. "So much of Judaism is taken up with the notion of social justice, of tikkun olam, that we are all supposed to be a healing influence … We want our daughter to grow up with a sense of responsibility for the world that Judaism fosters, the sense that she is a citizen of the world and is not just a passenger who can sit back."

The Simons will raise their daughter with a deep exposure to both her Jewish heritage and her Chinese heritage. "I want her to take occasional trips to China and to Israel," he says. "Which is not to say that some day when she is 11, she won't walk in to us and say that she wants to be Wiccan," he laughs.

Growing up as the child of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Simon is no stranger to straddling cultural identities. "I have an instinctive acceptance of it," he says. "I grew up with a dual identity and I never felt as a human being that I needed to choose one identity over the other."

He is reminded of his Jewish identity very often when he receives complaint calls from listeners: "Inevitably, whenever I get the most disgusting, obscene, over-the-top complaints from listeners, easily 90 percent of them are anti-Semitic."

Anti-Semitism is something he has witnessed throughout his reporting career. He recently explained to a young Indian intern in his office that the world has been unsuccessful in eliminating anti-Semitism and that Israel is the one place that provides a refuge for Jews, no questions asked.

"It's an escape hatch that the world needs, still, alas," he says. "This is one thing that I understand because I have traveled all around the world, and I think it's important."

In his recent commentary, Simon empathized with the parents of Sen. George Allen and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who experienced the epitome of Jew-hatred, the Holocaust, and who chose to keep their Jewish identity hidden from their children.

Now a parent himself, Simon made a different choice: "I live with a father's dread of that day some fool will hurl a racial insult at our daughter on the soccer field. But if and when that happens, I hope she'll score a goal and turn around and shout, 'And you know what? I'm Jewish too!'"

To hear an audio interview with Scott Simon, click  here.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Jeff Rubin

Jeff Rubin is the publisher of Hillel Campus Report.

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