From the age of 15 I thought I wanted to be a public radio journalist. This was spurred on by two things: growing up and waking to RNZ’s Morning Report every morning; and receiving the top prize for journalism in year 13 (7th Form).
While I didn’t end up becoming a journalist, my professional and personal life has involved interviewing diverse people about their experiences. Shutting up, listening and attempting to understand peoples stories has been an important learning for me. Basically I’m nosey. I know there are so many amazing stories in the world that aren’t shared enough. The emergence of podcasts as a medium for story-telling has been amazing. If you want to hear some good ones, these are two of my favorites right now: Home of the Brave and Rumble Strip Vermont.
I’ve been wanting to interview a journalist about their work for sometime. Usually, journalists are the ones asking the questions of others. I wanted to flip the script. I wanted to ask the questioner the questions. So, this is the first part of two conversations with Jeremy Rose: a public radio producer, critical thinker and radical doer. I was interested in speaking with Jeremy for a few reasons: His work in journalism has always stood out to me as creative, critical and on the edge. We worked together for an interview he did with me a few years ago about being a Honkey and my experiences of growing up bilingually. Finally, he’s got a fascinating family story and take on the world.
In part one of our conversation I asked Jeremy to reflect about his Jewish identity and growing up in Aotearoa. The Jewish experience and creative world has always fascinated me. Towards the end of the interview we talked about what got him hooked on journalism. So, with that, here’s my first of a two part interview with Jeremy.
How has growing up with a Jewish background in NZ influenced your identity?
My Jewish background was far from orthodox. My mum identified very strongly as Jewish but not in a religious or a Zionist sense. The Holocaust-loomed large in her worldview. She was born in Vienna in 1937. My grandmother was a Montessori kindergarten teacher who after being sacked for being Jewish, opened up a Jewish only kindergarten. The Nazis then raided that and smashed it up, forcing her to close-up.
One of my proudest memories of my grandmother, Olga Frankl, is her coming around to our house in Khandallah to ask for help from mum and dad in drafting a letter to the then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon following the dawn raids on Pacific Islanders. Her point was a simple one: the dawn raids brought make memories of the Nazis.
Mum would tell stories of the telegrams arriving from Europe to let them know of the death of yet another relative. Her grandparents, aunts, uncles a horribly long list of people. But a surprising number of her relatives also escaped so there was an extended family who lived in Austria, Israel, England, Australia and here. And my view of Jews was really shaped by them and by other Jewish refugee families.
Mum used to say that even though “radical” meant “root” in Latin, in reality radicals tended to be rootless. And I think there’s some truth to that. It’s that outsider-ness of Jews in European history that feeds a universalist idealism.
The other big influence that the Jewish connection had on me was the example of the kibbutzim. I first read about them when I was 12 or 13 in Golda Meir’s autobiography and was just entranced by the idea of a worker-owned, democratic community. Still am.
With such a politicized family, where did your parents decide to send to you to school?
I went to a small alternative school called Mātauranga, and a number of the parents and one teacher were Jews. There was Erich Geiringer (a fabulously brilliant radical Jewish doctor), Peter Munz (an anti-Zionist historian), and probably my favourite teacher Mike Regan (who had worked on a kibbutz and later edited the Jewish chronicle).
But in the main my Jewish identity was influenced by my mum. The dummy was never far from my mouth, and the cigarette never far from her lips. Her Jewishness was in a part a reaction to everything she hated about dominant culture, Christianity in particular. Growing up I didn’t really know what was “Jewish”, what was “Austrian”, and what was just my strange family.
You’ve spoken before about the influence of the Springbok Tour on your up-bringing. What was that about?
The Springbok Tour was quite important in reinforcing a sense of minority solidarity. My grandmother used to say, like many Jewish grandmothers used to say, “never again.” And I just assumed that that meant never again to anyone, not never again to Jews. Maybe it’s because dad isn’t Jewish or maybe it’s because there’s a strong universalist tradition among many Jews.
Anyway, during the Springbok Tour Karl Geiringer, Erich’s eldest kid, got in touch asking whether I wanted to be involved in an anti-Apartheid school movement. It wasn’t a big group but we made a bit of a splash. We forced our way into the South African embassy… Well two of got through the glass doors and about thirty were locked out. I then convinced the policeman inside that if he let a delegation of us go and see the ambassador I would tell the kids outside to stop smashing their fists against the doors. Incredibly he agreed.
Later we managed to get past locked doors at Parliament and into the House where Muldoon compared us to Hitler Youth. There were at least five other children of Jewish refugees in that group. There were Māori, Samoans and Chinese as well. It was far more multi-cultural than the adult protests. So I suppose I brought into some of the identity politics of the time, but I wasn’t really part of a Jewish community.
Can you tell me about how you ended up doing journalism and public radio?
Because my household was really political, my parents subscribed to three newspapers: The Listener, Broadsheet and the Guardian Weekly… I read them all cover to cover from about the age of 13. But I didn’t have any driving desire to be a journalist as far as I can remember.
There was a guy called Martin Walker who was the Guardian’s correspondent in the USSR. I recall thinking that must be a cool job. He wrote this piece about going out in negative 30 degree conditions and taking a piss and falling over backwards when he saw the stream of urine freezing in an arc back towards his dick.
I went to Israel for a year when I was 18 and was really keen to get back there and do what’s called an Ulpan – a total emersion Hebrew course – and then an Arabic course on the West Bank. When I got back to New Zealand I spent a year builder’s labouring and working in a market research company and was at university. This just didn’t appeal… Mainly because three years sounded to finish a degree felt like an eternity then.
So I went on a hitch-hiking trip down South. The first lift was with these two old codgers from Blenheim. They said they’d been to Wellington once during the war. I asked whether they were on the way to fight in Europe. “No, no. We didn’t get past Wellington.” It delighted me. I kind of felt I’d rather be listening to guys like them than being lectured on the hill in Wellington. I still feel like that. I love hearing people’s stories.
The journalism course in those days was a year-long and you didn’t need a degree to get in. It was competitive to get in – 600 applicants for 60 places or something like that. But once you were in you were pretty much guaranteed a job. I suppose I had dreams of it being a ticket to visit interesting places and maybe do some good while I was doing it. That was in 1986. I didn’t end up going back to Israel partly because the Israeli Government kept closing down the Arabic language course on the West Bank. They used to regularly close universities and educational institutions but there were a whole lot of other reasons as well.
After a couple of years working on the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune I headed to China to teach English in Harbin. It was negative 20 in winter there so I got to experience the hairs in my nose freezing and icicles dripping from the ceilings of open aired buses. I never had the courage to try pissing outside.
I enjoyed teaching. It was really just having conversations with medical specialists. But still identified as a journalist. I was critical of the nature of our mainstream media, and when I can back to NZ in the early 90s, I helped set up City Voice with Simon Collins, Mark Cubey, Nick Bollinger and others.
In part two, Jeremy and I talk more about the NZ media business, his interviewing tips and what lights his fire. Stay tuned.