If one poses the question “Why do Jews always ask so many questions?” the quick response from a fellow Jew might be “Why not?” We are a people of questions: secular and Talmudic scholars, great philosophers and, well … yentas. We all ask questions all the time, from the sublime “What is the meaning of life?” to the ridiculous “Nu, are you married yet?”
So maybe it’s not so difficult to understand why there seem to be such a large percentage of Jewish TV newscasters. On cable and network news, we’ve spent many hours with the inquiring minds of Mike Wallace, Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters, Larry King, Andrea Mitchell, Wolf Blitzer and Jon Stewart.
In Arizona alone we currently play host to three prominent TV newsmen: Mark Curtis and Brahm Resnik at Channel 12, KPNX, in Phoenix; and Matthew Schwartz, investigative reporter on Channel 4, KVOA, in Tucson. Each of the three grew up sitting at seder tables and hearing the Four Questions, the epitome of the process of asking questions to become better informed, to better understand. So maybe it’s no coincidence that’s what they do today in their jobs in the news. Well, at least it couldn’t hurt!
Mark Curtis has been a household name in the Valley since 1980, when he first arrived to broadcast the weekend sports for Channel 12. He quickly endeared himself to the public with his warm, sincere voice, striking good looks and obvious love of sports. On the job he became friendly with Dr. Eli Krigsten, a noted orthopedic surgeon who served as team doctor for the Arizona Wranglers, a professional American Football team in the U.S. Football League in 1983-84. When Eli realized Mark was Jewish, the next words out of his mouth were, “You want to meet my daughter?”
Thus began the courtship of Mark and Abby, who were married at Temple Beth Israel. They live in Scottsdale and have three grown children: Lindsay, who works at the Fox TV station in Las Vegas; Blake, who works in the business world; and Sydney, a sophomore at Arizona State University. Lindsay and Blake graduated from ASU as did their mother. The family continues its membership at Beth Israel.
Born in Alexandria, VA, into a Jewish family with roots from Hungary and Russia, Mark’s family attended the one Conservative shul in the town. “There was one Reform temple, as well,” he adds. Mark’s grandparents were Orthodox, and his family kept kosher when he was young. Judaism was important enough to his family that his mother insisted his sister become a bat mitzvah, even though the concept of girls attaining this rite was relatively new at the time.
Mark thought he’d like to be a doctor, but after two years in pre-med at the University of Georgia he accepted the fact he wasn’t ready to devote the time and energy necessary to the stringent academics. He transferred to American University in Washington, DC, and graduated with a degree in journalism. Though he quickly found a job as a sports producer in DC, Mark jumped when he heard about an opening at Channel 12 for a weekend sports reporter in 1980. After seven years of working weekends and lots of road trips, the family moved to Minneapolis, where Mark accepted a position reporting on sports during the week. The family next moved to St. Louis for a similar job opportunity.
When in 1995 long-time sports reporter Bill Denny was set to retire, Channel 12 reached out to Mark and brought him “home.” While his heart is still close to sports, Mark was happy to make the move to news anchor in 2004 to free up some weekend time to spend with his family. “Sports reporters typically work Sunday through Thursday, sacrificing their Sunday family days,” he says. “The kids were getting older, and I didn’t want to miss out on being with them. Becoming the anchor meant I would have a regular Monday through Friday schedule.” Though he notes that since Channel 12 now shows Sunday night football, he and Lin Sue Cooney, his co-anchor, are required to do the Sunday night news during the season. “But it’s temporary,” he adds with a smile.
Mark is grateful to Channel 12 for his nearly 20-year tenure with the station. “They’ve always been great to me,” he states.
“This is a fickle business. If for some reason, the public decides they don’t like me, or if the station gets new owners, you never know what could happen.” He adds that the family certainly hopes to stay in the Valley. Mark loves to golf and garden, and he can’t think of a better place to do both! Abby recently started a new business promoting Hair Warrior, a hair care product to help active women protect their hair (think hot yoga!). They are close to Abby’s family, and 13 of them regularly vacation together.
Part of his job is to be involved in the community, and Mark is particularly interested in lending support for two causes: pancreatic cancer, from which his mother passed away, and Crohn’s disease, which his son’s roommate had. He recognizes that both of these diseases are prevalent in the Ashkenazic Jewish community. He wears a purple bracelet to call attention to his commitment to work to end pancreatic cancer, and just a few months ago, he donated his time to host the Crohn’s walk/ run for a cure.
Over the years, he’s covered a wide variety of stories. Among his favorites were his first story, Muhammad Ali preparing for his fight versus Joe Frazier, and the unforgettable night in 2001 that he was in the broadcast booth when the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series.
“We hear all the time that the public doesn’t want to hear all ‘bad’ news. Imagine how we feel having to report it. Sometimes we have to say the same words three times a day. It can really get to you. With the recent Yarnell Hill fire, for example, we heard the stories directly from those who experienced the losses – the wave of devastation, a virtual tsunami of sorrow. It's our job to interrupt that grief to ask questions."
Mark quickly follows up this somber moment pointing out that Channel 12 does try to do positive news stories, as well, including a series on local “heroes.” They advocate for health care and social issues, and he finds the local community overwhelmingly generous whenever the station puts out a call for assistance in terms of food, clothing and other supplies for those in need. “This is really a great community. They always rise to the occasion!”
Brahm Resnik is a news reporter and substitute anchor as well as the moderator of “12 News Sunday Square Off,” a popular political talk show that airs at 8 am Sunday mornings on KPNX. Brahm was born and raised in Cote St. Luc, a nearly all-Jewish section of Montreal, Canada. “It was virtually a Jewish ghetto,” he comments, “but in a good way!” One of five children, he hails from Russian roots and grew up in a Conservative household. His family has always been involved in the Jewish community. His father was in the underground in Russia during World War II. “His story is chronicled in the movie ‘Defiance,’ ” Brahm says. One of his brothers was a paratrooper in the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War. His mother ran the Yiddishkeit group “Mama Loshen” (Mother Tongue) in Montreal for many years.
Brahm was at McGill University where he earned his bachelor’s degree when he met his wife-to-be Wendy, who had come from Virginia. She followed him to Northwestern, where he earned his master’s degree in journalism, and they were married in the Shakespeare Garden on the Northwestern campus. “It was the perfect setting,” he says. “The garden is filled with every flower and plant mentioned in Shakespeare’s fol
io and the main bough wraps around in a semi-circle to make you feel enveloped and warm. That’s where we put the chuppah.”
Brahm began his professional life in print journalism, and he and Wendy soon moved to Milwaukee, where their sons were born. “Milwaukee has a great Jewish community, but you still have to shovel snow,” he remarks. In 2000 there was an opening at the Arizona Republic for a business editor, and Brahm snagged the position. Within five months, the Republic was sold to Gannett. Since Gannett also owns Channel 12, there were suddenly additional opportunities. His mother and brother had been encouraging him for some time to give broadcast journalism a try, so without any previous experience, he summoned his courage and auditioned for an opening on TV. With his comfortable on-air presence, resonant voice and sincere smile, he won the position. “It’s like learning golf in front of 100,000 people,” he grins. “I still struggle with golf, but feel I’m getting the hang of being on TV! You make your mistakes, learn from them and move on.”
Brahm finds moderating the “Sunday Square Off ” to be both challenging and exciting. He has the ability to request the guests he wants, and he writes his own tough questions. “I pay attention to detail to try to devise just the right question, to make sure we hold our leaders accountable. I don’t lean one way or the other in my questioning, but leave it to the viewer to determine if ‘what they say is what they’ve done,’ based on their actual record.”
His sons Max and Jack nod their heads when they watch him ask those tough questions – they’re used to them! The boys each became a bar mitzvah through Temple Emanuel in the East Valley. Max was active in the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company’s youth program, and Jack stayed Jewishly involved through TETY, the Emanuel chapter of the Nationa Federation of Temple Youth, the national Reform teen program. He also volunteers at Camp Swift. Wendy works at the Phoenix public library system, where she is currently the Youth Services Coordinator at the Burton Barr main branch in downtown Phoenix.
One of Brahm’s recent proud moments was last summer when he became a U.S. citizen. He has mastered the pronunciation of “out” pretty well, but says he still has to stop and think about “project” and even “taco” as they are pronounced differently north of the border.
The final “tough” question put to Brahm: Where did the name Brahm come from? It doesn’t sound very Jewish. “Aha!,” he laughs. “My grandfather wanted me to be named after his brother-in-law, Abie. He wouldn’t allow ‘Anthony,’ my mother’s first choice – too Italian. My mother said she wouldn’t name me Abie, nor would she agree to Abraham, but from that came Brahm. My Hebrew name is Avraham. The funny thing is that one year when I went to camp, there were four Brahms there! The other three were Glickman, Weinstein and Schekman!
Matthew Schwartz is a recent transplant to Arizona from New Jersey via Florida. Born in River Edge and raised in Paramus, NJ, in a Conservative home, Matt’s family was involved at the Paramus JCC, which is as much a synagogue as it is a community center.
Matthew knew early on that he wanted to be a journalist and received his degree in that field from Ohio University in 1976. His neighbor while growing up was journalist Jim Donnelly, and two weeks after Matt’s graduation, Donnelly helped him get a job at WCBS Radio in New York City. Matt then set a goal for himself to make it to New York TV by the time he was 30. He moved around a bit for a few years with jobs in Utica, NY, Richmond, VA, and Cleveland, OH, before he was hired in New York. His first broadcast there was in 1984 on his 30th birthday on the station now known as WWOR.
Matthew began there as a general assignment reporter and was promoted to investigative reporter in 1993, putting in more than 20 years at that station. “This is a very nomadic business,” he says, “so I really appreciated the fact that I could stay in one place that long!”
When his New York station was bought by Fox News, he left and took a position in Tampa, FL, at WFTS. “But after a few years, a new news director was hired and wanted to choose his own team. Another example of how tentative this business can be.”
Matthew then took some time off to be with his mother, Shirley, who was fighting cancer. “My mother was an amazing woman,” he says with much reverence. “She reinvented herself many times. She was married to a man who died in the Korean conflict, while she was pregnant. I didn’t know until sometime around my bar mitzvah that my sister was technically my half-sister; there was no distinction made. My mother was a registered nurse who would take summer camp nurse jobs so that my brothers and sister and I could get free tuition. She was also an artist in stained glass and ceramics, with three kilns in our basement. When she was close to 60, she volunteered as a nurse in the Israeli army, and in fact is buried in her Israeli uniform.”
His mother passed away in 2009 at the age of 85, and a few years later, Matthew decided he missed the “biz.” There weren’t a lot of open positions for investigative reporters, but the one in Tucson caught his eye. He had gotten used to the warm winters in Tampa, and thought he’d be a good match for the Old Pueblo. He’s been with KVOA since April, is adjusting to the slower pace and is enjoying his surroundings. Matthew has three children: Michael, 26, who is playing professional baseball in the Frontier League after being drafted by the White Sox in 2010; Jason, 24, who is involved in exercise science and health clubs; and Jessica, 21, who is at Florida State University with an interest in print journalism.
Although he’s had the privilege of interviewing five U.S. presidents, Matthew thinks his most memorable story was his prison interview with “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz. He has won more than 200 awards for reporting and writing, including four New York Emmys. He’s particularly interested in helping consumers and is happy that KVOA is letting him choose his own stories. “I want to uncover fraud and corruption,” he vows. He encourages the Tucson public to contact him at the station with potential stories.
So, three newsmen with strong Jewish identities are in our midst – living, working and asking the tough, often uncomfortable, questions. What fed their strong sense of curiosity? Did pondering the Four Questions play a role? Hard to say, of course, but they certainly represent some of the best secular questioners around. And aren’t we in the Jewish and broader Arizona communities glad they do?