Jewish Journal

The Jews Of The Year, 2013

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

December 31, 2013 | 6:15 am

Every year, at precisely this season, Time magazine has its man/woman of the year. There should be a Jewish list as well. Here is a list of the Jews who moved me, challenged me, and/or amused me during this tumultuous year of 2013.

Anat Hoffman. Chair of Women of the Wall and Israel’s pre-eminent activist for social justice and gender equality. Anat, along with the throngs of women and men who have joined her, has succeeded in focusing the attention of the Jewish world on a gaping hole -- gender equality at Judaism’s most sacred site. Those who wonder about the future of religious Judaism – any version of religious Judaism – might be refreshed by the fact that we now have “binders full of women” (or scrolls full of women, more likely) who are willing to tolerate verbal and physical abuse in order to (gasp!) chant Torah at the Kotel. Keep it coming, Anat.

Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy. OK, so he's not really a boy. That would actually be Vanessa Bayer on "Saturday Night Live. '" On “Weekend Update,” he (he?) launches into a canned, cheesy bar mitzvah speech, filled with asides to various family members. Vanessa, by the way, is Jewish, and obviously spent many Shabbat mornings in synagogue. Thanks, Vanessa, for reminding rabbis, cantors and educators how bar and bat mitzvah sometimes looks from the pews, and perhaps for getting us to re-think how we approach this ritual moment.

Edie Windsor. Edie fought for the right for her marriage to her late beloved Thea Spyer to be officially recognized, and in so doing, won a major victory with massive implications for so many lives. Edie is everyone's "maiden aunt" who suddenly has her "enough moment." There’s nothing like being hauled out of relative obscurity, in advanced age, and realizing that your life had even more significance than you had even thought. 

Philip Roth. The quintessential American Jewish novelist and one time enfant terrible celebrated his eightieth birthday, with an announcement of his retirement. No one did a better job of interpreting the contemporary American Jewish experience as Philip Roth, if only because he refused to sentimentalize it. My short list of favorites: Goodbye, Columbus; The Professor of Desire; The Ghostwriter; Indignation; Nemesis, and the ultimate Holocaust novel, The Plot Against America – which takes place in Newark and is probably the most gripping piece of American Jewish fiction produced in the last decade. Oh, and still no Nobel prize for literature. Some people just have no taste.

And some that we lost…

Rabbi David Hartman. Rarely has a Jewish thinker had as much influence over so many. He was a penetrating thinker, a brilliant teacher, a master institution builder, a man who completely rewrote what a thinking Orthodoxy and critical Zionism could look like in our world. He was penetrating, loving, irascible -- usually simultaneously. It was a profound honor to have known him and to have learned from him. My life has never been the same. And I am very, very far from alone. His teachings live on in the classrooms, academies and pulpits of the Jewish world. 

Edgar Bronfman. Like Moses, he spent his youth in the “palace” of privilege, and he could have continued in that mode. But like Moses, “he went out to see his people,” and his life, and world Judaism, would never be the same. Almost everything that is good and transformative in the Jewish world had his, or his family’s name on it. Even better, he inspired others to give. And even better than that, he was not only a giver and an activist – he was a faithful student of Jewish texts. Now comes the challenge: who, of the 30s-40s age cohort, will take over for him? Who will be the major funders for the next generation? As the Pew Report made abundantly clear, we have a lot to do. Who is going to help?

Lou Reed. If you were a Jewish kid from Long Island, and of a certain age, and a musician, you wanted to be Lou Reed. Paul Simon was a nice Jewish boy whose music your mother would conceivably enjoy. Lou Reed wasn't nice. We don’t have an overabundance of Jewish rock stars who are actively and affirmatively Jewish. Lou always celebrated his Judaism – even and especially when he was “walking on the wild side.”

Arik Einstein. Arik basically invented Israeli rock music. He was an unusual rock musician – humble, almost shy. He had a great voice. He taught us that “you and I can change the world.” In that sense, he hearkened back to a more innocent, and perhaps more hopeful Israel. 

Superman Sam. I type this with trembling hands. Little Sam Sommers, age eight, the beautiful, sweet child of two rabbis, succumbed to leukemia – but not before inspiring a national movement on the part of rabbis and others to raise money and consciousness about childhood cancer. A lot of people are shaving their heads because of him. That campaign has happened almost entirely on social media, demonstrating what happens when chesed goes viral. And finally, his parents exhibited faith, grace, courage and hope beyond any human measure and description. There are legends that say that God weeps. Maimonides would have said that God has neither a body, nor eyes, nor tear ducts. Well, Maimonides was wrong. God is weeping right about now. 

My hope for Sam: in the olam ha-ba, in the world to come, Rabbi David Hartman is teaching him Torah. Edgar Bronfman is creating a new foundation, just for him, and is his Talmud chevruta (study partner) as well.

And, during breaks, Arik and Lou are doing duets, writing new music and jamming together. 

A good, healthy 2014 to all.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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