Bari Weiss & Other Oppressed Jews Secret Themselves behind Bookcase Bracing for Second Holocaust

September 15, 2019

In Blog News

Among the Moderate Chic at Bari Weiss’s Book Party

The embattled Establishment gathers to celebrate the Times op-ed columnist’s book on anti-Semitism.

Weiss at home before her book launch party. Photo: Victor Llorente for New York Magazine/Victor Llorente

Bari Weiss — editor, Times columnist, Twitter piñata, extrovert, and now author — began the launch party for her first book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, with an excited introduction. Standing by the window in a private room of the Lambs Club on the night of September 10, having ditched the oversize white shirt and glasses she wore on Morning Joe for a yellow-on-black floral-print dress from Saks, she turned to her aunt and said, “Aunt Betty, meet Shari Redstone, queen of all media!”

“I’m so proud of her,” said Redstone, the new chair of ­ViacomCBS. The daisy chain that led to Redstone’s invitation exemplified the particular mix of guests who made this night different from all other nights. Redstone and Weiss met at a dinner thrown by Richard Plepler — the former HBO chief executive and patron of the arts — and his wife, Lisa. The Pleplers met Weiss, who is 35, not through some philanthropic group but via Times reporter Nellie Bowles, Weiss’s girlfriend of more than a year.

Plepler had been mulling an HBO documentary about anti-Semitism, and Weiss — galvanized by the mass shooting at Tree of Life, her hometown Pittsburgh congregation — had set aside another book project to rush headlong into a dissection of anti-Semitism everywhere she found it (left, right, Islamic). So the Pleplers wound up sponsoring Weiss’s first book party. “Judaism, journalists, and — what’s the third J?,” asked the writer Boris Fishman, whose stories Weiss has edited at the Times and on Tablet, in an effort to describe the scene. “Oh, the third J is for ‘philanthropy.’ ” So far, so very Establishment. And yet, like Weiss, it was an Establishment that felt, at least to itself, like a class in internal exile, surrounded on all sides by Trump, Twitter, and timidity.

As the canapés came out (pastrami and pickle on rye squares!), the temperature rose, and the head count approached 140, guests grumbled about Twitter mobs and cheered Weiss’s ­outspokenness — though not all were so outspoken themselves. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, who met Weiss through Tablet founder Alana Newhouse, wouldn’t be quoted. Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger said, “I think she brings a terrific and really brave voice to the Times. I’ll leave it at that.” Asked what Weiss had contributed to the opinion pages, section editor James Bennet parried, “Is that a party question?” before offering that “she’s got a lot of guts and ambition, and it’s been a privilege to watch her become the writer she’s meant to be.” Asked a party question — what he thought of the party — he said, “I’m not an expert,” and wished me luck.

Plepler told me Weiss’s book is “smart, timely, necessary.” In a longish toast a while later, flanked by mirrors and sepia skyline photos, he said she “genuinely contributes to tikkun olam,” the Jewish concept of repairing the world. But when I asked Plep­ler, a Democratic donor, about Weiss’s tendency to anger some members of his party — she has equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, written sympathetically about the “Intellectual Dark Web,” and critiqued #MeToo — he went off the record.

Weiss herself was not shy about the barbs. Her teary thank-you speech focused on the book’s subject, using a column by her colleague David Brooks to explain the Jews’ “survival and success.” But she credited her own social-media survival to her inner circle: “A lot of people, the first thing they say when they meet me is ‘You seem like a nice person; how do you withstand the things people say about you on Twitter?’ And the answers are standing here by my side. Chief among them is Nellie Bowles, who is by far the most unexpected thing to happen from working at the Times.” She thanked Bowles her “vetting” her online activity.

Bowles, 31, who spent the evening bouncing among the guests in a highly excited state, is exhibit A in Weiss’s social eclecticism. Last year, Bowles wrote a harsh profile of the right-wing pull-your-pants-up guru Jordan Peterson just days after Weiss’s sympathetic piece on the dark web (including Peterson). Weiss was once married to a man, but before that, at Columbia — where she was known for leading a student campaign against anti-Zionist professors — she dated SNL comedian Kate McKinnon. McKinnon was also at the party; Weiss greeted her with a long hug. In April, Weiss told Vanity Fair, “I don’t trade on my sexual identity in that way for political points.”

Another strange (figurative) bedfellow, Eve Peyser, presented Weiss with homemade bialys. Peyser, once a vocal Twitter leftist, famously co-wrote a column with Weiss last year, headlined “Can You Like the Person You Love to Hate?,” about becoming friends with the writer she’d once targeted. She’d hoped to moderate Twitter’s position on Weiss (and on people in general) but only brought grief upon herself.

The depredations of the online left came up often at the party, with little or no prompting. MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who has frequently hosted Weiss on her morning show, deplored “cancel culture.” “On a regular basis,” she said, “people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t say that in public.’ As soon as people start to retreat and not share their views, it’s bad for society and culture.” To Ruhle, Weiss is “the perfect example of someone who gets unwarranted flak for her thoughtfulness.”

There were plenty of flak-catchers in the room. The neoconservative New York Post columnist John Podhoretz wandered around in an orange Lacoste shirt and sensible shoes. He finally quit Twitter in March, after several unsuccessful attempts, following a joke about bombing NYU. “Twitter is only good for people until they get around 75,000 followers,” he said. “And then the only thing you can do is fuck yourself … With the exception of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates that people are afraid to criticize, everybody looks like shit.” The fact that Coates did, in fact, quit Twitter, having amassed more than a million followers, after Cornel West called him “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle,” both undermines and reinforces Podhoretz’s point.

Closer to the heat of battle were women who found common cause with Weiss: Katie Roiphe, scourge of the “Shitty Media Men” list, who told me she and Weiss had commiserated over their ostracism, and Meghan Daum, author of the forthcoming book The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars. “There’s a sort of ambient dislike” online, Daum said, “and it’s almost become like a signifier … It’s a way of maintaining your status in the group for another afternoon.”

The status here at the Lambs Club was of a more traditional variety. Frank Bruni, the liberal Times columnist, defended the need for intellectual diversity at the “paper of record.” Looking around the room — the beige banquettes and velvet curtains and atomic-chic chandeliers — he played with the idea that it might resemble reality more than the internet does. “This party isn’t Twitter,” he said, “and I think it’s easier for diverse people to find points of connection. [Even] if this were a Bret Stephens party, you would see a far greater diversity than you’d expect.” Stephens, the Times’ most conservative columnist (though still not a Trump fan), was having a bad summer online. After someone called him a bedbug, he wrote to the offender’s boss, and followed up with a column equating such insults with Nazi rhetoric. Bruni was quick to say Stephens had told him “many weeks ago” that he would be out of town the week of the party.

In her book’s acknowledgments, Weiss writes that “no one taught me more than Bret Stephens.” But it’s harder to imagine him bridging political divides over brunch or a cocktail party. “I come from a Hasidic family, and I hang out with a lot of very left-wing media people,” said Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the novelist and Times profile writer, about whom no one has said anything negative for a solid decade. “If you look at that as the spectrum, Bari is one of the only moderates I know.” Fishman, the writer, put it a little more fatalistically: “I’m ex-Soviet, so I’m very receptive to a lot of what Bari has to say. Of course, it’s not enough for my parents and it’s too much for my friends, so reading Bari’s writing makes me feel really close to her and really lonely in the world.”

Fishman believes his lefty friends “don’t want to find out she’s a lovely human being.” The distance between Weiss the public figure and the woman described by these, her cultivated friends, was a popular party topic. But there was also a sense that the person and the persona were starting to merge. “Jesus Christ,” said journalist Michael C. Moynihan, “if you had told me three years ago that Bari Weiss would be the object of hate anywhere, I’d be like, ‘No!’ I mean, if you’d told me Trump would be president — the whole thing is crazy. I’ve known her for so long, and she was just kind of shy. But seeing her on Bill Maher, I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ ”

Out in the world, Weiss the persona was enduring plenty of publication-day scrutiny. Slate had run a review claiming she’d exploited the Pittsburgh attack, which had killed several of her former neighbors, “as a launchpad for a bizarre and undercooked exercise in rhetorical bothsidesism.” Critic Andrea Long Chu was posting screenshots of the book as evidence of alleged racism. And the Times Book Review had accused her of going soft on the left. But here in the glow, as Weiss hugged and kissed guests good-bye, she told me she was “having the time of my life.” When I said she seemed unusually extroverted for a writer, she agreed: “My alternative career path is rabbi or agent. Those are the things I love, making matches with people.”

*A version of this article appears in the September 16, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!