photo ©2006 NPR, by Michael Paras
An appreciation of Margo Adler appears on-line today at forward.com and will be published in The Forward newspaper this week. Because of space limitations, the thousand words I wrote was trimmed. The full piece appears below.
When Margot Adler, the longtime Manhattan-based NPR correspondent, succumbed to cancer this week at the age of 68, I thought back to the mid-1970’s when she worked at the left-leaning radio station WBAI-FM. I was a cub reporter there and when a clash between management and producers took the station off the air briefly in 1977, we met at Adler’s sprawling Central Park West apartment to strategize. Knowing that she was a self-declared witch, I half-seriously suggested that maybe she cast a spell on management to end the impasse. If only witches had a potion to stop tumors from spreading.
Adler, by the way, was not the only Jewish witch on the air at WBAI during the 1970’s. The other was Marion Weinstein, who was also part of the Gardnerian tradition of witchcraft, named for the British civil servant and scholar of magic Gerald Gardner.
The drift away from traditional Judaism in the Adler family began in the early 20th Century. Margot Adler’s grandfather grandfather Alfred Adler, the famous Jewish psychotherapist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, became a Protestant in 1904. Her mother, Freyda Nacque, was a Jewish agnostic according to Adler’s bio on a witchcraft web site. Her father, Kurt Adler, was a self-professed atheist. Some yichus, huh? Oh, and not only was Margot Adler a major witch, she was a member of a Unitarian Universalist church in New York. Oy.
And yet when you talk to people who worked with Adler at WBAI-FM where she started her journalism career and later at NPR, you get the sense she was a prototypical New York Jewish character.
Robert Siegel, the venerable “All Things Considered” host wrote in an email that he considered Adler a secular Jew.
Larry Josephson, an Upper West Side neighbor of Adler’s who worked with her at WBAI, said: “Jewish ethics and culture were part of her DNA.”
And Manoli Wetherell an NPR engineer who regarded Adler as a big sister, says she learned the meaning of the Yiddish word “heimish” from Adler, who attended feminist seders and always brought a menorah to NPR Christmas parties.
I see Adler as one of the many prominent Jews in the 1960’s counter-culture, Jews like Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman who rebelled against the established order in a variety of ways. She was participated in the free speech protests in Berkeley and was one of many New York Jews who went south for Freedom Summer organizing efforts as part of the civil rights movement. Adler was one of very few alumnae of WBAI or its parent network Pacifica to mention her radio roots in an official NPR bio. When she worked for WBAI she shared an office in the National Press Building with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh at the time he broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Her activist roots include traveling to Cuba to cut sugar cane as part of the Venceremos Brigade.
It was during the Vietnam War that Adler got involved in witchcraft. Paul Fischer, who hired Adler at WBAI, sees her embrace of witchcraft as “a rejection of the rational universe, her way of rejecting the Adlers.” He remembers Adler as someone who was never cynical but always skeptical and idealistic. “Sounds very Jewish to me,” he said.
Adler’s involvement with witchcraft came in 1973, according to Jim Freund, her intern at WBAI who inherited the early morning science fiction show she began, “Hour of the Wolf.”
“I’ll take credit or blame for that,” Freund told The Forward.
Freund remembers accompanying Adler in late 1972 to a presentation by a Witch Walli at a midtown Manhattan store devoted to the occult arts. Looking back, he remembers that, “For some reason, many of the witches were Jewish.” Freund says Adler rose extremely high in the witchcraft hierarchy and that among the people who attended the gathering of Adler’s coven was Whitley Streiber, author of “The Wolfen,” “The Hunger” and other horror novels, as well as the best-selling non-fiction account of his alleged encounter with aliens, “Communion.”
Mirroring her ascent in the witchcraft scene was her rise among NPR correspondents. Adler was universally respected at NPR. When I worked with her at NPR’s New York bureau in the 1980’s it was located in a building across from the Israeli consulate on Second Avenue. Our floor was also home to the Office of Tibet and the porn magazine High Society.
I remember that in 1989 Adler applied for one of the host jobs on “All Things Considered.” She was not offered the gig and joked about about being passed over. ”I’m the victim of double religious discrimination,” she told me. “I’m a witch and a New York Jew.” The broadcast already had one New York Jew, Robert Siegel, and some NPR insiders believe there was a reluctance to have a second. If that indeed was the case, it was apparently overcome in 2003 when Melissa Block became an anchor of the afternoon newsmagazine.
More likely it was Adler’s Wiccan life that made NPR brass uneasy about having a host who was an “out witch.”
“The last thing they would ever do is have a Wiccan as a host,” says Karen Michel, a veteran NPR freelancer based in New York’s Mid Hudson Valley. Michel is another Jewish woman who dabbled in witchcraft. In 1982 she was a member of a coven in Alaska. Michel participated in a radio broadcast celebrating the winter solstice. Adler was the anchor of the program. Michel visited Adler in the hospital shortly before her death and they had a good laugh about the solstice special. Adler, it turns out, blessed Michel’s home in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., standing on a large rock as she performed the ceremony. A day after Adler’s passing Michel went out to sit on the rock. She also read from the Tibetan Book of Liberation and burned a yahrtzeit candle for Margot Adler, the Jewish witch.