Assembling the Forward 50 is like taking a stroll through recent history. Certain landmarks become immediately visible, while others take longer to discern. The Jewish story in the last year was characterized by the traditional worries — about the Jewish future in America, about Israel’s future in the Middle East — punctuated by a new set of crises and concerns. The toxic national political environment gave rise to more polarizing Jewish voices on the left and the right, who argued over candidates, causes and Islamic centers; over who is responsible for Israel’s faltering world image and for the growing alienation among young American Jews.
But there were also reasons to celebrate. Imagine: It no longer is unusual for a Jewish woman, such as Elena Kagan, to serve on the nation’s highest court, or for a Jewish man, Eric Cantor, to be a Republican leader in Congress. The explosion in internet use and social media that connect us in both salutory and frightening ways have allowed entrepreneurs like the Russian-born Sergey Brin to bring staggering technological advances to market.
This year we saw the firm ascension of Russian Jewish leadership in both Israel and America, illustrated here by Misha Galperin, charged with nothing less than helping to transform the Jewish Agency from a sprawling organization in search of mission to an engine for promoting Jewish identity.
And with all the changes, the verities remain. Nicole Krauss represents just one of a number of Jewish writers, artists and performers whose creations pull deep from a specific, rich tradition while appealing to a broad, modern and sophisticated audience.
The Forward 50 is an impressionistic list, not a scientific survey. It is compiled by staff members (with input from readers) who search for men and women who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in a Jewish way. These are people whose religious and cultural values propelled them to engage, serve, lead, entertain, educate, create, advocate and exasperate in a decidedly Jewish voice. Let them inspire us, too.
The most widely used online search engine in the world was co-founded by a Russian Jewish immigrant, the formidable Sergey Brin. Brin, now 37, and Larry Page created Google 12 years ago while pursuing their graduate degrees at Stanford University; they dropped out, and the company they formed is now worth $150 billion, with a name so ubiquitous it’s become a verb.
This was a banner year for the media giant, whose corporate culture is known for fostering creativity and curiosity through unconventional means (its headquarters offers ping-pong tables and meditation groups). Earlier this year, Google declined to submit its search engines to Chinese censorship and pulled out of the country, a bold act that could have serious long-term economic ramifications. Brin’s principled stand may be a reflection of his personal history. His family battled Soviet anti-Semitism early in life (the Communist regime prevented his father from getting a higher education) before immigrating to the United States when Sergey was 6 years old.
Last November, on the 30th anniversary of the family’s arrival here, Brin gave an unrestricted gift of $1 million to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which had helped secure visas for his family. Brin was recently named to Fortune magazine’s “40 under 40” list (again) and to Vanity Fair’s “100 Influential Moguls.” But it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten his Jewish roots or HIAS, which helped his family, as he wrote on his blog, “start life anew in this land.”
Serving as minority whip, the second-ranking Republican in the House, should have given Eric Cantor visibility enough. But the five-term Virginia congressman decided this year to reach further. He took a leading role with the Republican “Young Guns” who are seeking to reform the party and return to its roots — small government and lower taxes.
But most of his energy has been dedicated to fighting the Democrats. In a year marked by a surging Republican momentum, Cantor drove the battle against health care reform and made the case for reducting the federal debt. He was also the main Republican voice attacking President Obama over his tough stance against West Bank settlement expansion.
In a way, it was also a lonely year for Cantor. He remained the sole Jewish Republican in Congress. Cantor is a member of an Orthodox synagogue in his hometown of Richmond, but he has not been invited to meetings of the informal Jewish congressional caucus, which is composed entirely of Democrats.
But Cantor, 47, has little time to dwell on the issue. If Republicans take over the House in the midterm elections, he is well positioned to capture a powerful leadership post there, spurring on rumors of a 2012 vice presidential bid.
This year, the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to shift its focus. In order to stay relevant, it has taken on the goal of promoting “peoplehood,” finding ways to instill a sense of Jewish identity and connection in the next generation. No one has been more at the forefront of this concept than Misha Galperin, 52. A Soviet Jew who immigrated to this country from Odessa in 1976 at the age of 18 and then later, as a clinical psychologist, worked with the immigrant community, Galperin was the first Russian to head a large Jewish federation when he became the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
The co-author of a study, “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?” he was named in March to a senior position in Global Jewish Affairs at the Jewish Agency. His role will be to restructure the quasi-governmental organization so that it can move its focus away from aliyah — its traditional function — to the kind of programs that will work toward its new “peoplehood” orientation.
This turn toward Jewish identity has not come without controversy. Some question whether it is the role of the Jewish Agency to do this kind of work in the Diaspora. But Galperin sees the agency’s newly refined mission to connect Jews all over the world with Israel as necessary to his people’s survival.
The résumé of newly appointed Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan is a litany of firsts. She was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School, the first woman to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, and, in 1973, the first young woman to become a bat mitzvah at New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue. “This was for us a watershed moment,” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, spiritual leader of Lincoln Square at the time, said in a recent interview with The Jewish Week. “After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time.”
In August, Kagan, 50, became the third sitting Jewish justice on the Supreme Court when the Senate confirmed her appointment. She is a child of the Upper West Side, the heavily Jewish Manhattan neighborhood home to Columbia University and Zabar’s market. Now fairly affluent, the area was rundown in the 1970s, and the Jews who lived there gave voice to a heady strain of liberalism.
Kagan herself wrote an undergraduate thesis on the Socialist Party. Despite her roots, she turned out to be a relatively uncontroversial Supreme Court nominee, even winning the support of a handful of Republican senators. What remains to be seen is how Kagan will impact the tone and balance of a Supreme Court that many observers say is the most ideologically polarized in years.
A number of factors have kept Nicole Krauss in the public eye even when she isn’t publishing a new novel. She has made herself known through a judicious smattering of short stories in Harper’s and The New Yorker (where she was named this year one of their 20 writers under 40), and she is also famous by association: Her husband is novelist Jonathan Safran Foer.
Krauss, 36, has shown an increasing historical breadth and intensity in her novels: moving from loss of memory to loss of love to vast historical loss. “Man Walks Into a Room”(2002) followed a man who suddenly lost his memory; “The History of Love” (2005) was a self-aware love story stretching across the 20th century (and through the Holocaust); and this year’s “Great House,” describes a sweeping arc of the history of destruction.
This tragic history is told from the vantage point of a survivor: a desk. The desk of the novel is the physical analogue to the “Great House”— a school of study established around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, one that formulated the early part of the Talmud. Together, the Great House and the desk provide a framework, in the context of destruction, for ongoing intellectual survival. In the novel, a finalist for a National Book Award, she writes that the Messiah may be “a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory.”
The effort to put in place a network of Hebrew-language charter schools has taken off in a big way in the past year — thanks to the work of 35-year-old Sara Berman. Not only did Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School gain much positive press as it completed its first year with 150 students (40 percent of them non-white), but other such charter schools have opened in California and New Jersey. Berman, who established the Brooklyn school, chairs the Hebrew Charter School Center, a project of the New York-based Areivim Philanthropic Group that was established to seed similar schools throughout the country.
Berman’s vision would perhaps not prove as productive if she were not the daughter of the major Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager. Steinhardt’s money has helped fund both the school and the center, and he has proven himself to be committed to the idea of using Hebrew as a way to sustain a secular Jewish identity. But by all accounts, it is Berman, a mother of six, and a former journalist and columnist on parenting for The New York Sun, who has infused the project with passion and a desire to find new forms of Jewish education for the future.
Leading a delegation of Muslim clergy through the gates of Auschwitz and Dachau is an unlikely job for a longtime conservative Republican and Orthodox Jew who served Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in senior positions. But that was the mission Marshall Breger took upon himself last August.
Breger, now a law professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, dreamed up the firsthand education idea as a way to address the problem of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism among Muslims. The delegation of eight prominent American Muslim leaders he ultimately recruited included a few who had made problematic past statements about Jews, the Holocaust or other topics. But that was part of the idea. Rebuffed by Jewish organizations in his search for funding, Breger found a patron in Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation and a partner in the small, New Jersey-based Center for Interreligious Understanding.
The result: a statement signed by all eight Muslim participants decrying Holocaust denial, vowing to take action against the proliferation of anti-Semitic statements in the Arab world, and committing themselves to sending young Muslims on similar trips and to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “No Muslim in his right mind, female or male, should deny the Holocaust,” said Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a Washington-area mega-mosque.
Breger cited the trip as evidence that “we can empower all voices in the Muslim world to speak the truth.”
Abraham Foxman is no stranger to controversy. In fact, some of his critics have argued that in his more than two decades at the helm of the Anti-Defamation League, Foxman has used controversy to draw attention, support and funding to his cause.
This year’s storm, however, attracted more attention than usual and has raised questions regarding the direction Foxman, 70, is leading the ADL, a major force in fighting any form of discrimination.
At issue was Foxman’s decision to release a statement expressing opposition to building the Park51 Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. The outburst of criticism the statement evoked exceeded even that of Foxman’s usual circle of detractors from the left, as the mainstream piled on. Journalist Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine that Foxman should be ousted, and columnist Fareed Zakaria announced he would return an award received from the ADL.
The ADL responded by pointing out its tough stance against recent Islamophobic incidents, but this did little to tamp down the criticism.
Foxman, by the power of his passion, his high-level ties and a life story that personifies the threat of anti-Semitism, long ago managed to turn the ADL into a leading Jewish powerhouse. His bipartisan approach throughout the years has contributed to the success of the organization. This year, however, Foxman’s decision to embrace the right wing’s view of the mosque debate and his continued criticism of the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel have led many to question whether Foxman’s ADL is still in the mainstream.
In December of 2009, long before the controversy over what became known as the “Ground Zero mosque” took hold of the national conversation — back when one of the organizers of the project could still appear on Fox News for a mostly friendly interview — one blog began to beat the war drums. That blog was Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs, which launched the opposition to a planned Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan with a post titled “Mosque at Ground Zero: Adding Insult to Agony.”
Neglecting to mention that the proposed center, now known as Park51, is not a mosque, per se, and is being planned blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, is par for the course for Geller, 52, a far-right, anti-Muslim provocateur. Known for her outrageous rhetoric and her Ann Coulter-like glamour, she was a key voice in spurring on the grassroots fervor that eventually catapulted the story into the mainstream political discourse.
Raised on Long Island, Geller has children in Jewish day school. Her website is hardly a credible source of analysis: Geller famously posted an essay by another author on the eve of the 2008 presidential elections arguing that Barack Obama is actually the son of Malcolm X. But as a key anti-Muslim voice both before and after the Park51 controversy, she has had an undeniable impact.
Ruth Messinger, 70, has turned the American Jewish World Service into a communal powerhouse. The numbers tell one part of the story: When she became president of the beneficent but modest service organization in 1998, it had a budget of $2.8 million, funding 65 projects and 50 organizations in 20 countries. This year, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, AJWS has a budget of $42 million; it is funding 626 projects and 458 organizations in 34 countries.
During Messinger’s tenure, AJWS has pioneered a unique blend of support for grass-roots efforts in the developing world with advocacy for social change, all in the context of Jewish teaching. In bringing together college students on an alternative spring break in Nicaragua, or an interdenominational group of rabbis on a service project in Africa, AJWS is helping to seed the next generation of Jewish leadership.
This year, Messinger deserves special mention for her extraordinary efforts after an earthquake devastated much of Haiti in January. The island nation has long been a draw for Messinger, dating to her relationships with Haitian-Americans during her years in New York City government. Just hours after the earthquake tore into the poorest nation in the hemisphere, Messinger arranged for AJWS grantees to coordinate relief activities and galvanized a fundraising effort that eventually brought in more than $6 million to 17 Haitian organizations.
At a national prayer breakfast months later, President Obama praised AJWS as an example of “the compassion and decency of the American people.” No doubt that is due to Messinger’s tireless, passionate leadership.
In August, nine contentious months after her appointment as the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, 59, traveled with Muslim clerics on a study tour of the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. The visit prompted criticism of her from Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who questioned the appropriateness of Rosenthal’s presence and said her leadership in fighting anti-Semitism was best done with governments, and not on private trips. Rosenthal’s swift retort stressed the importance of combating what she sees as the growing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in parts of the Muslim communities.
A former rabbinical student and the daughter of a rabbi who survived the Holocaust, Rosenthal has been a favorite of the Clinton and Obama administrations. She is a former executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a former board member for J Street. No stranger to controversy nor one to mince words, Rosenthal criticized Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, for accusing J Street of “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people” and declining to speak at the first annual J Street conference.
Rosenthal has a fierce determination to increase Holocaust education and handle anti-Semitism as a human rights issue. Her passion and new approach, though commendable, are likely to draw more attention to the cause of eradicating anti-Semitism and less to her tête-à-têtes with other leaders.
When Daniel Sokatch was tapped to head the New Israel Fund a little more than a year ago, he had no way of knowing what lay ahead: the most turbulent time in the group’s three-decade history of support for progressive causes in Israel.
Shortly after becoming CEO, Sokatch found himself dealing with an unprecedented attack against the group. An Israeli NGO, Im Tirtzu, issued a report claiming that NIF, through organizations it funds in Israel, was responsible for most of the damning information against Israel that was contained in the Goldstone Report on Israel’s military operation in Gaza. A barrage of critical newspaper articles and an advertising campaign followed, depicting NIF as anti-Zionist.
It was a test for the group, and also for the 42-year-old Sokatch, whose previous experience was limited to a brief stint as head of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and, prior to that, a longer term as founding executive director of the California-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. Sokatch, working with NIF president Naomi Chazan, led the group out of the crisis and even managed to take advantage of the controversy to increase fundraising.
Sokatch then took the lead in formulating funding guidelines that make clear NIF’s bright line against providing grants to groups that do not support a two-state solution or the Jewish connection to Israel.
Long active on the fringes of the Jewish world, the grass-roots, left-wing activist group Jewish Voice for Peace took significant steps toward the mainstream of the Jewish discourse this year — or perhaps the Jewish discourse took significant steps toward Jewish Voice for Peace. Led by Rebecca Vilkomerson, 38, the organization played a leading role in a handful of high-profile campaigns to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Most prominently, the group circulated a petition among American artists in support of the Israeli artists who refused to perform at a new theater built in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, gathering such signatories as actor Theodore Bikel and architect Frank Gehry.
JVP has been criticized for its support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The group says it only participates in boycotts of companies that profit from the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, although it says that it has “vigorously defended the right of others to engage in full BDS campaigns.” JVP’s support for the efforts of some students at the University of California, Berkeley, to divest from two companies that do business with the Israeli army put it at odds with many of the Jewish community’s activist groups, which lined up to oppose the effort.
Vilkomerson became JVP’s first permanent executive director in September of 2009, although she has been a longtime lay leader of the group. Today, Vilkomerson says, JVP has a mailing list of 100,000 people and more than 4,000 financial supporters.
In a year that saw mass teacher firings and the high-profile targeting of teachers unions by the education reform movement, one could have forgiven the nation’s leading teachers’ union official for keeping a low profile. But Randi Weingarten seemed to be everywhere at once, promoting her vision of a cooperative process between school districts and unions to improve the education system.
Weingarten, 52, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers and former president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, is a hard-nosed labor leader with sharp elbows. Arguably the most prominent Jew in the labor movement following this year’s resignation of Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, Weingarten is an heir to Al Shanker, the identifiably Jewish father of the modern teachers’ union movement.
Under Weingarten’s leadership, the AFT has sought compromise on key issues such as teacher evaluations. Still, she is fervent in her defense of her union. “There’s a perniciousness directed to teachers unions, simply because we are still the most densely organized group of people in America,” Weingarten told the Forward this year. “Everybody understands that our education system has to change…. But what you now have is this huge competition for dollars [and] government officials and so-called reformers who would rather point the finger at teachers and their unions because they can’t politically point the finger anywhere else.”
Jennifer Gorovitz became the first woman to head a major American Jewish federation this May when San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation named her its CEO. But as she took over the position, Gorovitz, 46, a lawyer-turned-fundraiser, also stepped into a potential minefield. The Bay Area Jewish community tends to have a charged atmosphere, where liberals and conservatives clash over Israel issues, and the federation is stuck in the muddy middle.
In February, following a controversial film shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the federation became the country’s first to announce formal restrictions on funding for Israel programs. The controversial policy states, in part, that the organization will not fund groups that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel… including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” nor will it support programming that is co-sponsored or co-presented by such organizations.
“Our mission is to fund programs in Israel that help improve the lives of Israelis, and to educate and build identification with Israel among American Jews,” Gorovitz said. “We seek to advance that mission through grant making. That’s why we’re in business.”
Though the policy changed little in practice, critics worried that it could lead down a slippery slope toward censorship — and in May, once Gorovitz had taken over after serving in an “acting” capacity, a group of 70 local Jewish activists and opinion leaders took out a half-page advertisement in the Forward protesting the guidelines.
Since then, because of Gorovitz’s consensus-building work, the fervor has died down. Gorovitz’s colleagues describe her as a calm, methodical promoter of a shared mission who has healed rifts without reversing policies. Though her tenure is in its infancy, her vision is showing much promise as it unfolds.
Filled with 99 years of adventure, the life of Ruth Gruber unfolds on the silver screen in a Bob Richman-directed documentary, “Ahead of Time.” The film illustrates the many accomplishments of the Brooklyn-born Gruber. She was the world’s youngest person (at age 20) to earn a doctorate, one of the first women journalists and the first foreign correspondent to fly into the Soviet Arctic (in 1935). Gruber was also the only American journalist aboard the Allied prison ship Runnymede Park, where she took her iconic photographs of a swastika superimposed on the Union Jack — photographs that forced the British to allow Jewish refugees into Cyprus.
“I was born in 1911 in a shtetl called Brooklyn, and I thought the whole world was Jewish,” Gruber says in the film’s trailer. She once pretended to be German in order to attend a Hitler rally. She later took the temporary rank of general in the U.S. Army to fulfill a special mission for FDR’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes — escorting 1,000 Holocaust refugees to America. Gruber tells these and other tales in her 19 books, but her work has been depicted in film only relatively recently: In 2001, the late Natasha Richardson portrayed Gruber in “Haven,” a feature film about her work for Ickes. And now, with “Ahead of Time,” which premiered in New York in September, the world can watch her story.
As an active member of and legal consultant to the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, attorney Alvin Levitt, 75, has long been a fixture in the Bay Area community. But in 2010, his reach expanded even further through his work for the Jim Joseph Foundation. Under Levitt’s leadership as president, and especially since its 2006 restructuring, the Jim Joseph Foundation has emerged as a crucial and leading benefactor of Jewish educational projects. In May, the foundation announced a grant of $33 million aimed at attracting and training teachers at three major Jewish educational institutions that represent, respectively, the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox religious movements: The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion; the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Yeshiva University. The schools will spend $1 million each over the next four years in a joint project to determine how to make Jewish education attractive to prospective teachers and how to utilize technology in Jewish teaching.
Also in May, the foundation announced a grant of $12 million to Stanford University’s School of Education to endow a professorship for the school’s new doctoral concentration in education and Jewish studies. Levitt, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, is listed as one of the “Best Lawyers in America” in a 2011 peer review referral guide. Beyond such formal recognition, his colleagues see him as inspirational.
Underneath his bushy beard, Alexander Rapaport, 32, is a media-savvy community activist. In 2005, after noticing people eating hungrily at synagogue, the Boro Park marketing professional identified a need: Poor Jews were hungry, but too proud to ask for aid. Rapaport then helped to found the kosher soup kitchen Masbia in Brooklyn. As director, he furnished the soup kitchen like a restaurant, and insisted on dignity and cleanliness, because, as he told The New York Times, “People in our community don’t want to be seen going to a soup kitchen — it’s highly embarrassing.” This year, as the community continued to feel the effects of the Great Recession, Rapaport opened new soup kitchens in Flatbush and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and in Rego Park in Queens. Altogether, Masbia, Hebrew for “satiate,” now feeds 450 people a night.
Before Rosh Hashanah, Rapaport served meals alongside local politicians, including New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Masbia receives the lion’s share of its funding from private donations and member items from city officials such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn — donations he calls “kosher pork.” He even solicited one company’s donation of 2,500 portions of fish for observant Jews who don’t eat meat during the nine days before Tisha B’av.
In a Jewish philanthropic world dominated by imposing men who tend to support traditional ideas, Lynn Schusterman stands out, and not just because of her diminutive size and the Oklahoma twang that she hasn’t relinquished even in the Park Avenue milieu of the mega-donor. Schusterman, 71, has her causes and her principles, and she follows them tenaciously. This year, she distinguished herself by blending her personal, forceful support for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered with a demand that other Jewish communal leaders and donors do the same.
To promote LGBT inclusion and equality within Jewish life, Schusterman wrote in a nationally distributed column that her family foundations — which give away tens of millions every year — “will only consider funding organizations that have non-discrimination policies covering both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.” Then she went a step further and asked “all Jewish organizations to join our foundation in adopting non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.” And: “We are also challenging donors to join us in holding organizations accountable for doing so.”
This statement raised understandable concerns among more traditional Jews who worry, for instance, that federations will stop supporting Orthodox day schools that fail to have such anti-discrimination policies. But by throwing down the gauntlet, Schusterman used her significant financial power to challenge American Jews to think more about the possibilities, and the limitations, of inclusion.
So you want to change the Jewish future for the better? Daniel Sieradski has plenty of ideas about how to do just that. This year, throughout the month of January, he presented one proposal a day for such innovations as an open-source website that allows users to customize prayer books, Haggadot and bentshers, and an eBay-like portal where sellers can auction their wares and then direct the proceeds to the Jewish charities of their choice. The Forward’s Sisterhood blog, together with Sieradski’s “31 Days, 31 Ideas” site and five other blogs, offered up a daily dose of innovative ideas the following month.
Sieradski, 31, has made a career of building online platforms for Jewish-themed commentary and conversation — founding several sites, including the popular, progressive group blog Jewschool.com. He is now director of digital strategy at Repair the World, a non-profit organization that promotes Jewish service. Prior to that, he was director of digital media at JTA. Sieradski is also the CEO of Jew It Yourself, which he bills as “the 21st century version of ‘The Jewish Catalog.’” The site, slated to launch early next year, will provide online tools for self-directed Jewish learning and community-building.
It’s no surprise that Jesse Eisenberg, 27, became the go-to actor to portray brilliant adolescent outcasts in films such as “The Squid and the Whale” and “Zombieland.” His awkward yet erudite mannerisms — he stammers as if he can’t keep up with his own thoughts — make it easy to see him as a young Woody Allen. Yet in the past year, as the lead in two very different yet influential movies, Eisenberg has proven that he can play much more than just awkward.
As Mark Zuckerberg, the young billionaire entrepreneur behind Facebook in this fall’s blockbuster, “The Social Network,” Eisenberg portrays a cold and calculating backstabber. And as the lead in “Holy Rollers,” he plays a confused young Orthodox Jew, who, after inadvertently becoming a drug mule, decides to put his shrewd business sense to nefarious use. To prepare for the part, he spent two years learning about the community and how to chant prayers and wrap tefillin.
A Hebrew school dropout at age 11, Eisenberg restarted his formal Jewish education only recently. Sill, we see in him the beloved neurotic traits of the Chosen People. “I constantly feel on the last day of a movie that it’s the last day of my career,” he told USA Today recently. “I could read the nicest thing about myself and say, ‘They only said great. … They couldn’t say very great?’”
With 19 home runs in his rookie year, 23-year-old lefty first baseman Ike Davis became the highest-profile Jewish baseball player of the season. Ever since April, when the New York Mets called up Davis from the Buffalo Bisons, its Triple-A affiliate, he’s earned a reputation for power and agility. With sparkling defensive plays and five hits in his first four major league games — plus his tie for second most all-time RBIs by a Mets rookie, behind Darryl Strawberry — some believe he’ll clinch the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Davis, who grew up in Edina, Minn., has baseball in his blood. His father, Ron Davis, pitched in the major leagues for 11 years. Though the Mets’ faithful carry “I Like Ike” signs, Davis was born Issac Benjamin Davis, and he has spoken about the fact that members of his mother’s family perished in the Holocaust. “I am really proud of my Jewish heritage,” he has said. “I’m glad Jewish kids get to see they can grow up to be professional baseball players.”
This fall, when Yom Kippur coincided with a game against the Mets’ division rival, the Atlanta Braves, Davis faced a dilemma: To play or not to play? Though Davis is not an observant Jew (he describes himself as “culturally Jewish”), his mother is, and so he left the decision up to her — and she, in turn, left it up to him. That Friday night, he took the field, walked once, struck out twice and scored a run. The Mets lost, 4-6.
For two days in late September, New York City’s Union Square was transformed into a sculpture garden. But the installations that dotted the downtown plaza weren’t just any sculptures; they were sukkahs, the temporary dwellings that Jews build for the fall harvest holiday of Sukkot. These avant-garde huts were the winning entries of the Sukkah City: NYC 2010 design competition, which attracted 600 submissions from 43 countries. The jury selected 12 designs as finalists, and all but one of those made it to Union Square. Joshua Foer, a member of Reboot, which organizes Jewish-themed artistic and cultural initiatives, worked with Reboot co-founder Roger Bennett to bring Sukkah City from idea to reality. In doing so, Foer helped initiate conversations about the intersection of Jewish law and design, and about the sanctity of the places we call home.
Foer, 28, is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” (Penguin Press) — and he is a member of a prominent writing family. His brothers are novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic.
Next year, Foer hopes to take Sukkah City beyond New York. “Now that we have elevated the sukkah to something that designers consider interesting… hopefully we can get architects designing these things in cities all over the world,” he told the Forward in September.
For many American Jews, Debbie Friedman is the one name they know among contemporary musicians who are making Jewish music. That’s because her music is absolutely everywhere: in synagogues, at simchas, in camps and in schools — not to mention wafting from the stereos in homes and cars. This year, Friedman, 59, released her 22nd album, “As You Go On Your Way: Shacharit — The Morning Prayers.” Ever since her first album appeared in 1972, Friedman has sought, among other things, to make the Jewish liturgy melodic and accessible, a tradition she continues with this latest effort to help listeners begin their days with serenity. “In this time of tremendous uncertainty… the comfort and sense of peace that prayer brings is a wonderful thing,” she writes on her website.
Known for high-energy live performances that bring audiences to their feet, Friedman continues to tour both at shuls and in concert halls. It remains to be seen whether prayer-based tracks from her new album, such as “Bar’chu” and “Amidah,” gain the popularity of classics such as “L’chi Lach” and “Mi Shebeirach.” But Friedman has empowered generations of Jews, especially women, to feel included, and to engage with religious texts in a new way.
A significant museum dedicated to the story of the Jews in America is such an obvious proposition that its absence seems anomalous. It has been more than 350 years since the first Jewish community in North America was founded and three years since ground was broken on Independence Mall in Philadelphia to erect the new National Museum of American Jewish History. Housed in a strikingly modern, five-story building, the museum offers exhibitions and an expansive education program that finally do justice to the remarkable history of the Jews in America.
The achievement is, appropriately, not the brainchild of a single person, but rather the product of teamwork. Co-chairmen George Ross and Ron Rubin, who led the effort to move the growing collection from an adapted space to a dedicated one, are on record as affirming that they are building a legacy. Gwen Goodman, executive director emerita of the museum, led the day-to-day efforts during the project’s foundational years until Michael Rosenzweig became president and CEO in April 2009.
Formerly active in Atlanta’s Jewish community, Rosenzweig, 58, most notably founded the Weber School — one of the nation’s first transdenominational Jewish day high schools. He formerly served as president of the American Pardes Foundation, which supports Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Since he took over, Rosenzweig has led the museum through the concluding stages of its construction, and he will have the privilege of presiding over the museum’s grand opening in November.
After two irreverent and hilarious novels that took readers around fictionalized states of the former Soviet Union (and its satellites), Gary Shteyngart brought it home this year with “Super Sad True Love Story.”
In Shteyngart’s “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” (2003) and “Absurdistan” (2006), characters bounced comically around the corruption, gluttony and absurd geopolitical structures forming in the chaos left by the Soviet Empire’s demise. Although still darkly comic, Shteyngart’s third novel is a critical look not at his parents’ homeland, but at his own American home.
Set in a dystopian near-future United States, “Super Sad True Love Story” is a frightening and realistic indictment of our current material obsessions and social values. As with “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” the protagonist is, like Shteyngart himself, a child of Russians who came to America as adults. But, in “Super Sad True Love Story,” the decay, dissolution and demagoguery of contemporary Russia have been translated into an American idiom in a way that feels authentic.
This is the year that Shteyngart, 38, moved from incarnating one Philip Roth character to another — from Alexander Portnoy to Nathan Zuckerman — proving that he’s not just a comedian of exquisite sensibility, but also a serious moral satirist of the highest caliber.
Steve M. Cohen and Leonard Saxe
With the news that there would be no National Jewish Population Survey this year (as there usually is every decade), the role of two Jewish social policy experts became even more important. Steven M. Cohen and Leonard Saxe are trying to provide the answers for questions about where the Jewish world is and where it’s headed, what our attachment is to Israel and what the next generation is thinking.
The pair seem to have an almost symbiotic relationship, responding to each other’s studies and surveys, criticizing one another and simultaneously using the other’s work to make a point.
Of the two, Cohen, 60, research professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, is more the pessimist. His research has [concluded that intermarriage is harmful to the Jewish continuity. Saxe, 62, a professor of Jewish community research and social policy at Brandeis University and director of the university’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, focuses on the brighter side. Particularly, Saxe has put a lot of stock in Taglit-Birthright Israel, the program that has been sending young Jews to Israel for free 10-day trips, as a lynchpin for reconnecting American Jews with their heritage.
Despite their different outlooks, their research is not necessarily mutually exclusive — though they might not admit as much. In the past year, it has offered a picture of the Jewish community as struggling to hold onto its identity and cohesiveness while using creativity to figure out the best way to do so.