In memoriam: Robert Wiener, 1940-2018

In memoriam: Robert Wiener, 1940-2018

Remembering Bob

NJJN staff writer Robert Wiener performs at the Don’t Tell Mama piano bar in New York City. Vimeo Screenshot
NJJN staff writer Robert Wiener performs at the Don’t Tell Mama piano bar in New York City. Vimeo Screenshot

We are saddened to report that our friend and colleague, Robert Wiener, died on Sept. 15 after a prolonged illness. He was 78. Former NJJN editor in chief Andrew Silow-Carroll shared the following essay about Bob’s life

When I edited the New Jersey Jewish News from 2003 through 2015, the staff and I made a commitment to creating a true local paper, one that reflected not some generic version of “Jewish” but a distinct chronicle of the particular New Jersey communities that we covered.

If we succeeded, much of the credit goes to Robert Wiener, who joined the paper shortly before I did and, at an age when other journalists were enjoying a well-deserved retirement, reported the hell out of the towns and institutions that he loved (even if he would never admit that). Because Bob had the dogged reporter’s knack for seeming to be everywhere at once, he was the face of the Jewish News. If there was a community event to be covered, a veteran to be interviewed, a Holocaust survivor whose story needed to be told, Bob was there. Tall, white-haired, and Falstaffian, Bob was a walking billboard for the heimishe institution we tried to be.

Bob died Sept. 15 at age 78, after an illness that was simultaneously swift and, for the family and friends who watched him suffer, way too prolonged. A 1961 graduate of Rutgers University, Bob came to the Jewish News after a career as a TV producer and broadcast journalist. He worked at WCBS, WABC, NBC, Court TV, and numerous other stations. Among his first jobs was a stint as a young reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger. For five years he was a producer at News 4 New York for the legendary street reporter Gabe Pressman. They shared a number of local Emmys, including an award for Outstanding Issues Reporting for a 1989 series called “The Lost Children,” a harrowing account of infant mortality, foster care, and homelessness in New York.

A less generous journalist might have condescended to his readers at a weekly ethnic newspaper, so far removed from the glamorous hurly-burly of New York’s broadcast media. But Bob never coasted and never gave less than 100 percent. Eternally frustrated with his computer (and eternally frustrating the staffers who tried to show him how it worked), Bob banged out stories with two stabbing fingers, then leaned back to chat with whomever was in his line of sight.

Raised in Maplewood, Bob was also a link to the Newark roots of the Jewish communities we covered. He had an especial fondness for the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, and loved to cover its exhibitions. I remember the glee with which he wrote about a two-day tribute to Newark native son Philip Roth, which included a tour of the old Weequahic neighborhood and a talk by the novelist himself at the Newark Public Library.

As for his Jewish roots, Bob liked to pretend that he was less literate and more alienated than he was, although I think he came to his distaste for organized religion honestly. “One of Gabe’s missions was to make me a better Jew,” he once wrote in tribute to Pressman, after his death in 2017 at age 93. “While other friends gave me books and CDs at a birthday party, he gave me a book called ‘How to teach your child about Chanukah.’ I don’t think his efforts worked.”

A young Bob Wiener coolly enjoying the sun. Photo Courtesy Christine Frick-Gerke

Bob privileged action over prayer, and he could talk for hours about his involvement in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. At Rutgers University, Bob was editor in chief of The Daily Targum. He was proud of how he, the executive editor David Rosenzweig, and the future celebrity biographer Digby Diehl led the paper in challenging the racism, anti-Semitism, and hazing that were rampant in much of the fraternity system. The editorial board opposed required ROTC service for undergraduates, and won exemption for women at Douglass College who kept kosher and didn’t want to pay for a campus meal plan they couldn’t use. I loved hearing these war stories. We’d also talk about Lenny Bruce and jazz, old movies, and the long-forgotten celebrities we both admired. Bob was, at heart, a crooner. Each year he would invite the office to his cabaret performances in the city, where he’d sing from the Great American Songbook and perform his own parodies — a skill honed over years of writing and performing for The Inner Circle Show, the annual roast put on by New York’s journalism community.

Above all, Bob was a role model for anyone who hopes to age with defiance and dignity. He had the energy of a kid, never hesitating to rush out to cover breaking news, or give up a Sunday or a weeknight. I used to joke that he was the world’s oldest cub reporter.

Bob was proud of his son, Daniel, who followed his dad into the TV production business. In recent years Bob and his companion, Roni Berger, saw much of the world on regular trips abroad.

Bob was still contributing to NJJN when he fell ill, and his death landed hard among his colleagues past and present, a close-knit crew that keeps in touch on the NJJN Alum Facebook page. Ron
Kaplan, a former sports and features editor, remembered Bob’s kindness on Ron’s first day of work, and how the veteran journalist, upon learning that Ron’s then-11-year-old daughter was interested in photography, asked her to take a photo for a story he was working on. A few remembered his frequent cat naps at his desk — a habit I never begrudged him since it didn’t seem to dent his productivity. And all said they missed the vaudevillian back-and-forths between Bob and former managing editor Abby Meth Kanter (now NJJN’s editorial adviser), neither of whom believed in using a phone when they could just yell from desk to desk.

Bob being Bob, no funeral is planned; his family said a memorial event is in the works — produced, of course, by Bob.

What Bob wrote about Pressman goes for me and everyone else who knew and loved Bob. “You didn’t make me a better Jew,” Bob said of his old friend. “But you sure as hell made me a better person and for that I am eternally grateful. Rest well, my friend. You made all of us proud.”

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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