Forward 50, 2010
Until 2000, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was a leading member of Washington?s policymaking establishment. But something happened: He became an acerbic critic of his former colleagues and even of the premises of modern capitalism ? a position he outlines in his latest book, ?Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy.?
As chairman of President Bill Clinton?s Council of Economic Advisers, Stiglitz worked closely with top policymakers Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan and assented to the ?Washington Consensus? they crafted: a mix of market deregulation, balanced budgets and anti-inflationary monetary policy the United States prescribed for troubled Third World economies.
In 1997, Stiglitz became senior vice president for development policy at the World Bank. What Stiglitz saw there permanently changed him. In an April 2000 article in The New Republic, Stiglitz predicted that protesters at an upcoming meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank would call the two institutions arrogant, secretive and deaf to input from the countries they are supposed to help. ?They?ll have a point,? he said. During recent economic crises, he stated, ?I saw how the IMF, in tandem with the U.S. Treasury Department, responded. And I was appalled.?
Now 67, Stiglitz is a bitter critic of the bailout of the banks. ?I think many of these guys [should be] in prison,? he said of those responsible for the crash.
In many ways, Stiglitz wears his Judaism quietly. Steeped in Jewish secular ideas and his familial milieu, he?s a public man whose private values are driven by a particular sense of social justice.
During the 1990s, Lawrence Summers was one of the prime architects of President Bill Clinton?s success in eliminating the federal budget deficit. He played a pivotal role in successfully pushing for financial deregulation ? most importantly with his move to defeat proposals that would have regulated derivatives, the complex and often opaque form of leverage that played a key role in crashing the economy under President Bush. But one month into his new job as chief of President Obama?s Council of Economic Advisers, Summers invoked John Maynard Keynes to announce a promised change in outlook. ?When circumstances change, I change my opinion,? he said.
As head of the council, Summers, who served as Harvard University?s first Jewish president from 2001 to 2006, reshaped himself as an advocate of Keynsian deficit spending and reregulation of the financial markets to address the nation?s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Still, some critics say he has been too timid. One of the key players in shaping the administration?s $787 billion economic stimulus package, Summers rejected those who warned it would prove too small. This past spring, with unemployment stuck near 10%, Summers called for a second, $200 billion ?ministimulus,? a proposal given little chance of passage by Congress. The administration?s financial regulatory reforms, passed this year, though sweeping in scope, were also criticized for leaving substantial loopholes, such as exceptions to the requirement that derivatives now be traded publicly. In September, Summers, 55, announced that, come 2011, he would be returning to his tenured position at Harvard.
Two strains dominate Jewish customs throughout the world ? Ashkenazic and Sephardic. But food traditions and recipes are much more localized than religious practices, and it is a rare cookbook or food book that provides an excellent representation of the culinary customs of various Jewish communities. Yet, Gil Marks ? a historian, social worker, ordained rabbi, and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author ? managed to encompass nearly the entirety of Jewish food around the globe in his ?Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,? which came out in September.
The book, which Marks researched and wrote in a remarkably short three years, contains more than 650 entries about Jewish foods and culinary customs from communities as varied as Yemen, Italy, Latvia, China, France and Ethiopia.
Employing his rabbinic knowledge and diverse background, Marks, 58, skillfully traces the history of each food or culinary practice. He supplies the food?s name and its relationship to Jewish texts or holidays, and he situates it in the broader culinary traditions of the surrounding community. The author of four other cookbooks, Marks has also included 300 recipes in his encyclopedia. The first modern Jewish counterpart to ?The Oxford Companion to Food? and France?s ?Larousse Gastronomique,? Marks?s anthology is an indispensable guide to Jewish food.
It is hard to put a single face on the new Jewish food movement, which has grown immensely in recent years, but one person has certainly planted many seeds of the movement?s success: Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, 41, director of Adamah, a farming fellowship for Jews in their 20s, has been instrumental in training and encouraging a new generation of activists who are, in his words, ?cultivating soul and soils, harvesting people and pickles.?
Adamah alumni include such people as Naftali Hanau, who launched Grow and Behold, a pasture-raised kosher chicken company based in Brooklyn, and Risa Alyson Strauss, who opened the Kavanah Organic Community Teaching Garden in Toronto. The 14 participants who work at the farm of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut each season learn how to harvest crops, run a dairy and maintain Jewish agricultural traditions.
?We started it before we knew it was the next big thing in terms of sustainability,? Sadeh told the Forward. ?Food issues bring together people, movements, and politics and religion in a way no other environmental or social issues do.?
About his last name: It is not what he was born with, but the name ?Sadeh? existed in his family generations ago. And, of course, it means ?field? in Hebrew ? a fitting reference for someone who is helping to transform the way modern American Jews purchase and prepare ethical, sustainable, Jewish food.
America has become obsessed with food television: We?re hooked on cooking shows, eating competitions, cook-offs and culinary travel shows. One of the most recognizable faces of that world is Top Chef judge Gail Simmons. After serving as a judge on several seasons of ?Top Chef? and ?Top Chef Masters? on Bravo TV, Simmons, 34, progressed to hosting and serving as consulting producer on the program?s latest spin-off, ?Top Chef: Just Desserts.?
The dessert and pastry competition among new chefs debuted this September. In her new role, Simmons has put her signature on the show. A special projects manager at Food and Wine magazine ? formerly, she was an events manager for chef Daniel Boulud?s restaurant group as well as an assistant to Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten ? Simmons is more than qualified for the part.
While her love of Jewish food is rarely evident on ?Top Chef,? Simmons speaks passionately about her mother?s Jewish cooking. Despite her many projects and successes, Simmons told the Forward, ?the most gratifying thing, is when people come up to me? and tell me that they hate to cook, but they?ve started to try at home and they are trying new things on menus?. That?s why I?m doing all of this in the first place ? to spread the gospel.?
Perhaps no single piece of writing generated more conversation in the Jewish community this past year than an essay published in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart. Titled ?The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,? the article presented an argument that is not new but was certainly given sudden prominence because of the person who was making it. Beinart, 39, the onetime editor of the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic magazine and now a journalism professor at the City University of New York, offered a sharp critique of American Jewish leaders. In Beinart?s estimation, they had sacrificed the community?s liberal instincts in order to support an Israel in which, he wrote, ?a humane, universalistic Zionism is gasping for air.?
Beinart?s essay shook the American Jewish world, and people responded with either disdain or support for his argument. His critics thought he was being blind to the realities of life in the Middle East and that his assessment about dwindling American Jewish support for Israel was false. Others, though, believed that he was exposing uncomfortable truths. As for Beinart, he told the Forward that the point of his essay was to try to ignite a conversation about how to ?revive a liberal Zionism? ? a task he describes as ?the great challenge of this generation.?
Andrew Breitbart, 41, has been billed as the right?s answer to the Huffington Post?s Arianna Huffington. The outspoken, sensationalistic media personality added two new websites to his growing empire this year: Big Journalism, a media criticism group blog, and Big Peace, a foreign policy blog.
In July, Breitbart posted an edited video depicting a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee ? Shirley Sherrod, who is African-American ? apparently admitting that she discriminated against a white farmer while working for the USDA.
Sherrod resigned under pressure the same day. An unedited version of her remarks, released the following day, showed that the clips Breitbart had posted had been taken out of context, leading Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to apologize to Sherrod and offer to rehire her. Breitbart said that he had not seen the unedited version of the remarks before posting the videos.
Breitbart represents a Tea Party-friendly slice of the Jewish world. So far, his media activism has focused on areas outside the Jewish community, but that could change soon, with the promised launch of a new Breitbart site, Big Jerusalem. ?It?s going to be pro-Palestinian nationalism ? kind of Al Aqsa Martyrs? Brigade-esque, but with hints of pop culture and snarkiness,? Breitbart told The New Yorker this year ? a statement made ?with heavy irony,? the magazine was quick to note.
No one can deny that Jeffrey Goldberg?s stories have impact. As a staff writer for The New Yorker during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, Goldberg, 45, published a widely praised article asserting that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had channeled aid to Al Qaeda and was close to getting a nuclear bomb ? conclusions later debunked by post-war government studies. This year, the talk in Washington was all about Goldberg?s in-depth report in The Atlantic, for which he now writes, on Israeli political and military sentiment for a military attack on Iran. His key finding: If international efforts fail to stop Tehran?s drive for nuclear capabilities soon, and if the United States does not attack Iran, Israeli leaders see ?a better than 50% chance? of an Israeli strike by next July.
Critics charged Goldberg with promoting war by giving short shrift to arguments against it, even among some senior Israeli officials. But in contrast to his cheerleading for the Iraq war ? he predicted it would be ?remembered as an act of profound morality? ? Goldberg characterized his attitude about a possible Israeli strike on Iran as ?deep, paralyzing ambivalence.?
Fidel Castro was so impressed with the article that he invited Goldberg, a former Forward staff writer, to Havana, where he told the writer that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should stop his Holocaust denial. ?I don?t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,? Castro said. ?I would say, much more than the Muslims.?
A Democrat in the White House has hardly tempered the irreverent and distinctly Jewish voice of the liberal-leaning fake news anchor Jon Stewart. The 47-year-old funnyman has entered his 11th year as host of Comedy Central?s ?The Daily Show,? which has grown into a popular nightly platform to skewer politics and government. Stewart?s politician ribbings and show biz catechisms sometimes intersect with reportage ? as, for example, when he highlighted the connection between Fox News and Saudi Arabia?s Prince Walid bin Talal, who is not only a large donor to the people behind a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero, but also News Corp.?s second-largest shareholder, a fact Fox News did not always disclose.
Stewart is quick to play the Jewish card, drop a Zabar?s reference or cozy up to bubbes and zaydes at the 92nd Street Y. Young Jews identify with Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz (his given name) and admired his tact after former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez made anti-Semitic comments about him and then was fired. Stewart recently came out with a new book, ?Earth: A Visitor?s Guide to the Human Race,? which is filled with squishy science and funny one-liners. He also kept busy pushing his ?Rally to Restore Sanity,? to be held October 30 in Washington. Participants were encouraged to dial down the shouting and bring their ?indoor voice.?
The Jewish mayor of the city that is home to roughly 7% of the world?s Jewish population began his third ? and, he promised, final ? term this year. Michael Bloomberg?s most memorable public moment as mayor of New York City came this past summer on Governors Island, a former military base just south of Manhattan, at the height of the controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. Jewish leaders had equivocated in their statements on the center, while Republicans rushed to denounce the project. But Bloomberg, 68 ? flanked by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders ? issued a stirring defense of the community center based upon principles of religious freedom.
As he spoke on that August morning, Bloomberg referred to the persecution of early Jewish immigrants to New York, who were initially denied permission to build a synagogue. ?I believe that this is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime,? the mayor said, ?and it is critically important that we get it right.?
The Islamic center debate has continued to cause conflict in the city, but the position of New York?s mayor is clear.
Many of the Obama administration?s top advisers had left the White House by the end of the President?s second year in office, but only one got an East Room sendoff hosted by Obama and attended by most Cabinet members. Of course, Rahm Emanuel, 51, wasn?t just another senior staffer. In his two years as the adviser closest to the president, Emanuel lived up to his reputation as a tough political bargainer. He was credited with some of Obama?s success in passing two major reform bills: health care and financial regulation.
During his tenure, Emanuel remained behind the scenes on issues relating to the Middle East peace process, but he ventured into the spotlight during a visit to Israel. What had been planned as a private bar mitzvah trip for his son turned into a diplomatic mission when Emanuel delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an invitation to visit the White House ? a visit that turned the page on the rocky relations between Netanyahu and Obama.
Despite running an around-the-clock schedule at the White House, Emanuel kept an open door to Jewish activists, and his office was a high-level destination for community leaders concerned about the administration?s policies.
Now, Emanuel, a proud member of Chicago?s Jewish community, is back to local politics, running for mayor of his hometown.
When seemingly insurmountable compensation challenges arise, ?compensation czar? Kenneth Feinberg, 65, is often called to the plate. He was the key mediator when it came to allocating funds to victims? families following the nightmare of 9/11 and the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, and he was then recruited to be the U.S. Treasury?s special appointee for executive pay setting limits on executive compensation at companies receiving federal bailout money.
This year, following the BP oil spill that ravaged the economy and ecology of the Gulf of Mexico, the petroleum giant set aside $20 billion to pay victims? claims. Feinberg, an attorney, was given the Solomonic task of splitting up the BP settlement sum among the affected parties, replacing BP?s own allocation process. He set up protocols for the case ? for instance, ruling that those who sought settlement money from BP would have to waive their rights to sue the global energy company. This decision drew fire from some politicians, who claimed his actions were being influenced by the compensation he received from BP. Still, a New York Times editorial called the master mediator?s judgments ?magnanimous and fair? ? fitting words for a man whose role as claims czar requires a passionate fidelity to the biblical commandment ?Tzedek tzedek tirdof? ? ?Justice, justice shall you pursue.?
Although Dennis Ross joined the Obama administration in its early days, it was only this year that the 62-year-old diplomat found his niche within White House foreign policy bureaucracy. Ross, who spent decades trying to broker peace in the Middle East, has returned to his natural position ? as key adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama initially brought Ross in to advise on issues relating to Iran, but as the administration?s relations with the government of Israel deteriorated, the veteran diplomat?s expertise and personal familiarity with the region?s key players became indispensible. Quietly, Ross emerged as the go-to person for back channel discussions. He went to Israel to ease differences before the launch of direct peace talks with Palestinians, and returned again later to try to resolve the impasse over the settlements in the West Bank.
Ross?s job description remains vague, partly to avoid stepping on the toes of special envoy George Mitchell. His strong pro-Israel views are no secret. Even so, Palestinian and Arab diplomats view him as an honest broker.
Ross remains active on Iran, where the unfolding situation has mirrored his earlier predictions. In his latest book, co-authored with David Makovsky, he advocated reaching out diplomatically to Iran but stressed there was little chance this would work. Still, he argued, having made the effort could help garner international support for sanctions. Two years later, reality proved Ross to be right.
Debbie Wassermann Schultz
The first Jewish woman elected to Congress from the Sunshine State, Debbie Wasserman Schultz has risen quickly through Democratic Party ranks. As vice chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the South Florida congresswoman has been a driving force behind the party?s 2010 election season strategy and its fundraising efforts. She is thought to be a leading contender to become chairwoman of the DCCC. Wasserman Schultz also serves as the House Democratic chief deputy whip and as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Her meteoric rise since her election to Congress in 2005 is even more impressive because it coincided with her breast cancer diagnosis. She has undergone seven major surgeries, including a double mastectomy. She has tested positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation ? a mutation most commonly found in Ashkenazi Jews that greatly increases the risk for breast and ovarian cancers. This year, she led the successful effort to designate the last week of September as National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week.
Wasserman Schultz, 44, whose efforts, back in 2006, helped bring about the presidential proclamation that established Jewish American Heritage Month, this year introduced a House resolution that would expand the social services offered to Holocaust survivors ? with a special focus on those whose incomes are less than 200% of the federal poverty line.
When Arnold Eisen left West Coast academia to become chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary three years ago, he accepted a monumental challenge: to help invigorate a Conservative movement that had lost members, status and momentum. And that was before the recession delivered a wallop to the storied halls of Conservative Judaism?s flagship educational institution.
Faced with the institution?s serious financial woes, Eisen this year announced a dramatic new strategy that replaces JTS? traditional emphasis on original Jewish scholarship with a focus on community engagement. Along the way, the dean of JTS? cantorial school was abruptly let go, the administration was reorganized, and 15 employees lost their jobs. As Eisen?s plan goes forward, many doctoral programs will be eliminated in favor of a more interdisciplinary approach to training rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators.
Critics worry that the new strategy will make it more difficult for JTS to attract and retain talented scholars, especially when so many colleges and universities offer Jewish studies programs. But Eisen argues that the seminary needs to recognize this new reality and reorient itself to become an educational institution that will engage in, as the new plan says, ?scholarship in service to Judaism and the Jewish community.? Eisen, 59, is the author of several celebrated books on the future of American Judaism. Now, instead of writing about the future, he is shaping it.
For the first time in nearly four decades, the Conservative movement has a new High Holy Day machzor, or prayer book ? one that attempts to bring the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into the modern era. Gone is the outmoded liturgical jargon: God is not ?awesome,? but rather ?awe-inspiring?; worshipers ask not for ?salvation,? but for ?help.? Included are meditational readings, modern Israeli poetry, prayers that recognize gay and lesbian families, and recitations that reference not only the patriarchs, but also the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
Overseeing the machzor?s makeover was Rabbi Edward Feld, the former spiritual leader of New York?s Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Feld, 67, chaired the editorial committee and served as the senior editor of the 460-page machzor, which was 12 years in the works. The effort focused on making the prayer book more accessible and infusing the text with meaning, Feld told the Forward. The idea was to create a machzor that reflects Conservative Judaism?s big tent. ?It is meant to recognize all of the different people who are in the congregation,? he said. ?It?s inclusive of our own heart, of our own ambivalences; it?s for people who are knowledgeable and for those who are in synagogue once a year.?
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the departments of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is accustomed to bringing critical causes to the fore in the Orthodox world. In 2001, he published an article that broke the seal of silence on the issue of depression in the Orthodox community. This year, he?s brought another long-suppressed social issue to the table ? homosexuality.
After a panel discussion on homosexuality at Yeshiva University in December prompted a backlash of petitions from students and teachers condemning the event, Helfgot, 46, created a petition of his own. He drafted a ?Statement of Principles,? a document that has since been signed by more than 160 influential Orthodox rabbinical leaders and educators. It states: ?Embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.? The statement draws a clear distinction between condoning same-sex relations (prohibited under Halacha, Jewish law) and treating all people, no matter their sexual preference, with love and respect.
?In the community today there is a lot of pain; there is a lot of suffering and unnecessary shunning,? Rabbi Helfgot told the Forward. ?It?s one thing to say that the Torah forbids homosexual sex. It?s another thing to say that someone who is a homosexual isn?t entitled to come into my synagogue.?
Mordechai Levovitz, co-founder of Jewish Queer Youth, an Orthodox support group, believes that the statement made an immediate difference in the lives of his orgnaization?s closeted members. ?They feel that when they do come out, when they talk to their parents, they can bring this,? Levovitz said. ?They can say, listen, I?m coming with rabbinical support; I?m coming from within Orthodoxy.?
Jacqueline Koch Ellenson
As executive director of the Women?s Rabbinic Network, Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, 54, has long been a mentor to female rabbis and rabbinical school students in the Reform movement. This past year, in the wake of the arrest of two members of Women of the Wall ? a prayer group that meets each month at the Kotel ? Koch Ellenson has rallied American Jews on behalf of the group. She is an international vice chair of the newly formed group Rabbis for Women of the Wall.
Following the arrest late last year of Women of the Wall member Nofrat Frenkel, who was wearing a tallit and thus ?performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others? ? ?others? being the ultra-Orthodox worshipers who do not believe that Jewish law permits women to pray in groups, read from the Torah, or wear tallitot ? Koch Ellenson helped organize an international Day of Solidarity with the organization. ?With this national grass-roots initiative, we will express our support for the rights of the Women of the Wall to assemble at the Kotel and to pray there with dignity, in safety and in shared community,? the rabbi wrote at the time.
Then, after the July arrest of Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman while she was carrying a Torah in the Kotel plaza, Koch Ellenson, her husband, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion President David Ellenson, and their 24-year-old daughter decided to attend the following month?s Women of the Wall prayer service in Jerusalem. There?s something to be said for being right on the front lines.
Rabbi Naomi Levy?s Judaism is primed for the 21st century: soulful, socially conscious, diverse and informal. In 2004, she founded Nashuva, a groundbreaking Jewish spiritual movement that set up shop in a Los Angeles church. Levy, 47, has spent her career counseling people, yet nothing prepared her for her daughter?s diagnosis with a fatal degenerative disorder. ?My life as I knew it stopped. I stopped teaching, I stopped speaking, I stopped traveling,? she told the Forward, noting that her entire existence became wrapped up in healing her daughter.
Levy?s powerful new memoir, ?Hope Will Find You,? published this year, chronicles her seven-year journey toward understanding her daughter?s illness, (which wasn?t what she was initially diagnosed with), accepting life?s uncertainties and embracing hope. (She?s never dodged a challenge: Levy was in the first class of women entering the Conservative movement?s Jewish Theological Seminary and, at 26, became the first female Conservative rabbi at a West Coast congregation.) Inspired by mentors, Torah study and Noa, Levy became a storyteller, a spiritual guide and a survivor, all in one.
Meanwhile, her daughter offered her unparalleled strength ? and a book title. ?I asked Noa what her Haftarah [section she was reading from the Prophets] meant to her, and she told me, ?Mom, I think it means if you don?t like your life, if you try really hard, you can find hope.? And then Noa corrected herself. She said, ?No, Mom, hope will find you,?? Levy writes.
When the Israeli Knesset began considering legislation to codify the role of the chief rabbinate in conversions, a rare and emotional divide opened up between Israel and Diaspora Jewry over the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs. While Reform and Conservative rabbis have not been shy about promoting the cause of religious pluralism, most prominent lay leaders were hesitant about criticizing Israeli policy ? until Jerry Silverman stepped in.
As the newly named president and CEO of the newly renamed Jewish Federations of North America, Silverman, 52, already faced the nearly impossible task of rejuvenating the sprawling organization as it searched for relevancy and financial support. He was visiting Israel in June when a Knesset committee approved the so-called Rotem bill on conversions, and he ended up remaining there to ensure that the Diaspora?s voice was heard.
?We look at the immense amount of investment that is going in to try and tie North American Jewry and Diaspora Jewry to Israel?? he told the Forward at the time. ?Then there?s this language that frankly has a delegitimizing effect on the Jews in the Diaspora.?
Working with Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency, Silverman effectively branded the legislation as one that would undermine Jewish unity at a crucial time, and with other Diaspora leaders, managed to put the bill on hold. For now.
Most scientists aren?t known for their communication skills. But Dr. Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning Columbia University neuroscientist, is the exception. This year, Kandel, 80, elucidated his life ? and his life?s work on the physiology of memory ? in the documentary ?In Search of Memory.? The film, released in January, was based on his autobiography of the same name. Film critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times called the film ?a generous introduction to someone worth knowing, who knows an awful lot.? In between scenes of scientific work and explanation, the movie shows Kandel attending a Seder and exploring his Austrian roots.
Kandel, who endured anti-Semitism in Nazi-ruled Vienna before immigrating to the United States, deals with his pain-ridden childhood every day ? after all, he studies memory. ?I cannot help but think that the experiences of my last year in Vienna helped to determine my later interests in the mind, in how people behave, the unpredictability of motivation, and the persistence of memory,? he wrote in a Nobel autobiography. Kandel, who often wears a bow tie, is also a co-director of Columbia?s Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, which will soon find a home in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center being built on the university?s new campus in Manhattanville.
A professor of human genetics and division director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University School of Medicine, Harry Ostrer is a leader among scientists working to understand Jewish genetics. As director of the Jewish HapMap Project (a collaboration between the NYU School of Medicine and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University), Ostrer conducts a smaller version of the Human Genome Project ? which defined the sequence of the entire human genome ? to understand the structure of the genomes in Jewish populations. That, in turn, has led to discoveries about the causes of and treatments for genetic diseases.
In June, Ostrer, 59, and several co-authors published the paper ?Abraham?s Children in the Genome Era? in the June issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, highlighting the strong genetic bonds both within and among Jewish communities around the world. The paper focused on Jews? distinctiveness compared to the populations among which they have dwelled, and the links among distinct Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek and Ashkenazi Jewish groups that can be traced to a common source in the Middle East. As Ostrer told the Forward, ?We found a high degree of relatedness among Jewish Diaspora groups. It supports the notion of Jewish peoplehood ? that there?s greater relatedness between the Jewish populations than between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.? But he is careful to note that this is different from the question of who is a Jew; Ostrer does not think that answer can be found in genetics.
Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton
It was called ?the wedding of the century,? though perhaps ?decade? would be more accurate. When Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky married this year in Rhinebeck, N.Y., in an interfaith ceremony performed by a Reform rabbi and a Methodist minister, they reinvigorated the intermarriage conversation for a new generation of Jews.
The daughter of President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is as close to political royalty as you can find in America, and her marriage to a son of Jewish immigrants ? an involved Jew himself ?was a validating first in many ways. Wedding photos showed a chuppah, a ketubah and a groom who wore both tallis and yarmulke. At the same time, holding the interfaith ceremony on the Sabbath defied even Reform rules, and sent a confusing message to those uncomfortable with the growing acceptance of ?marrying out.?
One message was clear: The Clintons and Mezvinskys telegraphed to the world that Judaism has nothing to hide. For the hot debate this couple caused about who is a Jew and what role nuptials play in religion, for how they captivated the American imagination and energized the conversation around Jewish identity ? making Jews from New York to Texas angry, astonished and proud ? the Forward this year creates a 51st space, for Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.