Former CNN anchor recalls journey to Judaism
‘I was not supposed to go without shellfish,’ jokes Campbell Brown
Former TV anchor Campbell Brown says mainstream news organizations are “doing a pretty good job” in covering the Middle East.
November 9, 2011
In 2004, when television anchor Campbell Brown was still with NBC, she would meet each Friday with another woman behind the closed door of her office.
“So the whispering began,” said Brown. “Who was this woman who would show up on Fridays? Was Brown having a lesbian affair? Was she a shrink? Was she having a nervous breakdown?
“You would not believe the gossip that went around.”
In fact, the woman was a Reform rabbi, and the closed-door sessions were part of Brown’s preparation for her conversion to Judaism.
On Nov. 2, Brown regaled a roomful of women at Choices, an annual fund-raising event sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy of the UJA MetroWest Campaign. In a laugh-filled half-hour speech, Brown entertained her audience with tales about her marriage to author and politico Dan Senor, her transition to Judaism, and her observations about TV journalism.
The event at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston, attended by 350 women, raised $675,000 in pledges for the campaign.
Brown recalled how in 2004, while covering Iraq for NBC, she met Senor, at the time a chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Brown and Senor, who is Jewish and the coauthor of Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, were married less than a year later.
“It was not all smooth sailing,” said Brown, who was raised a Catholic. “One hurdle was my religion. Dan had asked me to convert.
“He was not supposed to marry a shiksa,” she said. “I was not supposed to live without Christmas trees, Easter eggs, and shellfish.”
Nevertheless, Brown agreed to a “fairly rigorous conversion process” under the tutelage of the Reform rabbi, who was “not entirely mother-in-law approved.”
Even after she converted to Judaism, one of her biggest challenges, she said, “was winning over” Senor’s mother, a Holocaust survivor and Orthodox Jew.
“I don’t think her son, in her mind, was supposed to marry a Catholic girl from Louisiana,” Brown said. “I grew up eating shellfish. It is my favorite food. Shrimp, soft shell crab, crawfish. When Dan is out of town and I am out to dinner I order shrimp — but never at home. My older son is allergic to shellfish. We call it ‘savta’s [grandma’s] revenge.’”
Brown said she and her mother-in-law are now “extremely close, but it has been quite a journey for me. I did not expect when I was growing up that my obsession would be how to host a kid-friendly and yet mother-in-law-approved seder.”
When her husband visited her Catholic family for Thanksgiving dinner in Louisiana, Brown told the gathering, the menu included shrimp Creole, crab meat and artichoke dip, oyster stuffing, and crawfish pie.
“I said to my grandmother, ‘You know, Dan keeps kosher. There is nothing for him to eat.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ve got ham in the fridge.’ So there was an educational process that had to take place.”
In a question-and-answer period, Brown discussed her role as a correspondent and anchor for NBC and later as the host, from 2008 to 2010, of her own evening show on CNN.
When a member of the audience asked about how “Israel is portrayed in the media in general,” Brown took issue with the question.
“I don’t buy ‘the media in general.’ That doesn’t exist any more,” she said. “The media is so fragmented you have to be smart enough to differentiate where you are getting your information and the agenda behind the organization that is providing that information.”
“I think the mainstream organizations that are still trying to do objective reporting are doing a pretty good job. They are pretty fair in their coverage, but they are not the dominant source anymore.”
She also disputed another audience member’s suggestion that CNN’s coverage is biased against Israel.
Brown said she has received critical mail “from both sides. I think CNN is still trying to be fair and balanced and have both perspectives represented.”
Brown said her own departure from CNN came after her bosses insisted that, in order to boost lagging ratings, she engage her strident cable news competitors — right-wing Bill O’Reilly on Fox and left-wing Keith Olbermann on MSNBC.
“They wanted me to try to start fights with them the way the were fighting each other,” Brown said. “I could never go down that path.”
Anna Fisch of Short Hills, president of Women’s Philanthropy, urged participants in the Nov. 2 “Choices” event to turn their attention to “the profound needs in our own backyard, needs that are increasing at an alarming rate due to the difficult economy we continue to face.”
The event, featuring a talk by journalist Campbell Brown, was a fund-raiser sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Fisch spoke of a couple thrown into turmoil after the husband was forced to close his real estate office. She said the family of five depleted their savings, lost their medical insurance, faced defaulting on their mortgage, risked a shutoff of their gas and electricity, and ran up $50,000 in credit card debt.
“They became a family in crisis,” Fisch said.
But through Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, the family received UJA-subsidized financial, job, and marriage counseling as well as bankruptcy assistance, payment for their unpaid utility bills, and health insurance for their children.
Their “lives were turned upside-down, but through our help, they are getting back on their feet,” said Fisch. Their story is “one grain of sand on a vast beach of needs UJA responds to every single day.”
— ROBERT WIENER