Jewish Year in Review 2016

Guide me in Your truth and teach me…
— Psalms 25:5

It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. Telling is the Oxford English Dictionary’s pick for word of the year: post-truth. Until it was chosen, I had no idea that this was actually a word. Here’s how our smart friends on the other side of the pond defined it: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oy, I say.
Of course, the United States presidential election dominated the news day after day in 2016. There were certainly many Jewish stories to emerge from this political whirlwind, but, if you’re feeling like me right now, you’d rather think about something else, something perhaps more interesting and inspiring than post-truth politics and nasty campaigning, something like this breaking 2016 fashion news from Women’s Wear Daily: Ariel and Shimon Ovadia, of Ovadia and Sons, spent two days scrutinizing the way both single and married men dress in a Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem for their fall menswear collection. They sent models down the runway with black silk frocks with fabric buttons and tasseled belts. “The tonal looks and rich fabrics...lent a luxe feel to the collection.” Who knew?
And here’s what inspired me: the opportunity to reflect on the contributions of a number of remarkable MOTs (members of the tribe) who died in 2016 and who collectively helped shape the world as we know it. Holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel died (July 2) leaving us the mandate to continue his voice of moral consciousness. Nobel Prize winner for literature, Hungarian author, Imre Kertesz died at the beginning of spring (March 31). Like Wiesel, he wrote powerfully about the Holocaust.
Speaking of Nobel Prizes, it’s been a good year for the Jews. Oliver Hart took the prize in economics and Michael Kosterlitz joined two others who were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on superconductors. Kosterlitz, whose major research is on endorphins at Aberdeen University, is the son of Hans Kosterlitz, a German-born biologist who left for Scotland in 1934 with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commended these winners for "theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter." Let me know if you have any idea what that means. This year’s controversial winner was musician and song-writer Bob Dylan or Shabtai Zisyl ben Avraham or Robert Allan Zimmerman. As we all know, he was too busy to get the prize. I just want the Noble Committee to know that if I get it, I will go to Oslo immediately.
Former president and prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, also died this year right before the High Holidays (September 28). An important link to Israel’s founding generation and the oldest person to serve as head of state, Peres was elected prime minister twice and served in twelve cabinets. Israel also lost Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad (March 17) who gave thirty years to military service.
On screen, we lost the beloved actor Gene Wilder (August 29) who entertained us as adults in “Blazing Saddles” and entertained us as kids in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Sitcom queen Doris Roberts also died (April 17). Called the Jewish Billy Graham, Esther Jungreis gave decades of her life to Jewish outreach before she died this past summer (August 23). This year, the oldest living Jewish woman died at 113. Goldie Steinberg, a Hadassah member and bubbie, died a month before turning 114 and said the secret of her longevity was a daily walk. Lesson learned. Let's put our sneakers on.
2016 was a banner year for another 113-year old. Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who was born in 1903, had to postpone his bar mitzvah for 100 years since, at thirteen, his mother had already been dead for three years and his father was serving in the Russian army at the beginning of WWI. Kristal was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. When Auschwitz was liberated, he weighed only 82 pounds. He had lost a wife and two children.  Kristal moved to Israel and began his life anew and now has 30 great-grandchildren. His daughter, Shulamith Kristal Kuperstoch told The New York Times: “My father is a religious man, and it was his dream his whole life to have a bar mitzvah. It was a miracle after everything he has been through in his life. What else can you call it?”  
Hanukah is a great time to think about miracles like this. Another miracle and aspiration for 2017 comes from our quote for the week: “Guide me in Your truth and teach me...” Sometimes we need to learn to tell the truth again so that next year’s word of the year will be “post-lies.”
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah!


2015: The Jewish Year in Review

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
— Psalms 90:12

Many of us will be happy to say goodbye to 2015, with its haunting terrorist attacks, strange presidential debates and wacky climate changes. And as a people, here's what we fought over in 2015: a divisive Iran nuclear deal, which GOP candidate Jewish Republicans can get behind and the release of Jonathan Pollard. The terrible attacks against Jews in Copenhagen and a Jewish supermarket in Paris had us talking about whether Jews should stay in Europe.

We stop our bickering to mourn the loss of some special Jews in 2015 like Theodore Bickel, who played Tevye the milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof" more times than any other actor. That play is making a Broadway come-back to excellent reviews. We lost Leonard Nimoy, whom comedian Dave Barry said will be beamed up for the last time and the larger-than-life physician/writer Oliver Sacks. A professor called the Kierkegaard of Orthodox Jews, Michael Wyschogrod, passed away, as did theologian Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin. Turning eastward, we lost a towering rabbinic figure with the death of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of one of the most prestigious yeshivot in Israel and Yehuda Avner, who began his aliya digging the latrines at Kibbutz Lavi and went on to become a speechwriter and advisor for many Israel prime ministers. 

In July, Nicholas Winton (born Wertheimer) died. He organized a rescue operation to bring 669 children - most Jews - from Czechoslovakia to Great Britain before WWII. This miracle was not public knowledge until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook about it in the attic. That year, he was invited to be a member of the audience of a BBC television show "That's Life", where, unknown to him, his gift of life was described and that scrapbook was displayed. The show's hostess asked if anyone in the audience had been saved by Winton. More than two dozen people next to Winton stood up and clapped. He was knighted for his services to humanity.

In the non-celebrity, tragic category, we lost Rochelle Shoretz to cancer at 42. Rochelle was the founder of Shoresh, a support and educational network for Jewish women with breast cancer. Faigy and Sara Mayer, two young ex-Hasidic women unable to find rest and happiness, took their own lives, forcing introspection on what religious commitment looks like. Seven children in the Sasoon family died in a Shabbat fire in their home in Brooklyn, prompting another important conversation on fire safety in observant Jewish neighborhoods. As of this writing, there were 23 victims of terror in Israel, including the recent death of Ezra Schwartz from Boston on November 19th and the deaths of Eitam and Naama Henkin on October 1st.
Moving from argument to grief to pride, in the prize category, this past year's awardees for the Presidential Medal of Freedom is flush with our people: violinist and conductor Itzchak Perlman, Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Streisand were acknowledged for their contributions to American arts and culture. It is the highest civilian award in the United States. It seems - and I hate to say it - that there were no Jews on the Nobel Prize roster, and we haven't won in the world peace category since 1995 so we are long overdo. Nation, go make some peace.
I consoled myself with this fun fact learned in 2015: The Israeli town of Rishon Le-Ziyon has a street named for the 160 plus Jewish Noble laureates: Tayelet Hatnei Pras Nobel or Nobel Laureates Boulevard/Promenade. Who gets to live there, I wonder? That's prime real estate. In 2015, the University of Salzburg announced that Konrad Lorenz, a zoologist who received the 1973 Nobel Prize in physiology, was stripped of his honorary doctorate, 26 years after his death, for his embrace of Nazism. And I don't want to brag, but in August of 2015, Israel officially became 8th on the list of countries to host the most Nobel Prize winners, and Technion University in Haifa has been associated with more Nobel prize winners than either Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge (If you've heard of them). I'm just saying...
But before we get all full of ourselves, we also had some bad Jews this year. Ehud Olmert, former prime minister of Israel and its first prime minister to be incarcerated, was handed a reduced jail sentence this past week. Joining him behind bars is Jared Fogle, the Subway Guy, whose weight loss helped him become a spokesperson for the restaurant chain until he was arrested for child pornography. He won't be eating subs for at least 15 years. But enough of bad news or bad Jews...

  • In 2015, aliya hit a record high for the past twelve years with over 30,000 immigrants moving there from across the globe.
  • Those involved in daily Talmud study hit the 1,000th page and are inching towards the mid-point in the seven and a half year cycle.
  • And Adam Sandler has a new Chanuka song.

A number of exciting book titles were released either by Jews or about Jews, like Kerri Steinberg's Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience and Bewilderments by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Several anthologies came out about or including the writings of Saul Bellow, including The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 by Zachary Leader and Israel Zamir wrote a memoir called Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer. We closed the year with a remarkable achievement. Herman Wouk just published Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author to mark his 100th birthday. Mazal tov - 'til 120!
We close 2015 with this thought from Psalms: "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." Let's learn from some of the mistakes of 2015 and do better in the year ahead. We need that heart of wisdom, and the world needs it too.
Shana tova and Shabbat Shalom