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21 Jewish moments of 2021

Time can be a funny thing. “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” Albert Einstein once said. That seems like a pretty good description of the year that was.

The past twelve months have, at times, felt like so much more. America and Israel both got new leaders and a vaccine rollout offered hope and promise of a post-pandemic life. An Olympics came and went, and another is already on the horizon. There were riots and lockdowns and trips to outer space. Britney Spears finally got her freedom.

Here at the Forward, our newsroom welcomed new staffers to help cover what would become a very momentous year in Jewish news. As we prepare for all that’s to come in the year ahead, we pause to reflect on the time gone by…

Jan. 6, 2021 / The Capitol riots

Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Antisemitism was wrapped up in the conspiracies of a stolen election that fueled the violent riot inside the U.S. Capitol. While organizations like the Anti-Defamation League closely tracked the bigotry of protesters, the best evidence for it was offered by the man pictured wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt as he meandered through the Capitol building. Robert Keith Packer, the man in question, was arrested by federal law enforcement days after the riot and charged with two misdemeanors.

Jan. 11, 2021 / The death of Sheldon Adelson

Multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson at his Las Vegas casino in 2008.

Multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson at his Las Vegas casino in 2008. Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

When the philanthropist and Republican mega-donor died at 87, he left a void in the Jewish nonprofit world. He sent thousands of young Jews to Israel through Birthright; built a solid foundation for Yad Vashem and shifted the American-Jewish conversation – and Israeli domestic politics – steadily rightward through his support of pro-Israel organizations and campus initiatives.

Jan. 19 – 20, 2021 / A new administration

President Joe Biden delivers his Inauguration speech after being sworn in as the 46th president.

President Joe Biden delivers his Inauguration speech after being sworn in as the 46th president. Photo by Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP

Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator, is sworn in using the Chumash of a rabbi who was a leader in the civil rights movement. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York became the first Jew to serve as Senate Majority Leader. The next day, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president. He filled his cabinet and senior staff positions with enough Jews for a minyan.

Mar. 27, 2021 / The vaccine rollout

A Jewish man in Israel gets administered the COVID-19 vaccine.

A Jewish man in Israel gets administered the COVID-19 vaccine.

Israel became the global leader in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, and continued to serve as a trusted source on its efficacy and boosters. In the U.S., the first night of Passover – which landed just as senior citizens became fully-vaccinated – marked the first time that many families reunited since the start of the pandemic.

Apr. 6, 2021 / Yiddish course goes live on Duolingo

Want to learn a bisl Yiddish? Duolingo can help with that.

Want to learn a bisl Yiddish? Duolingo can help with that. Courtesy of Duolingo

For years, people were wondering when the popular language-learning software would offer instruction in the mamaloshen. By launch day, more than 10,000 hardcore fans had already signed up. On Reddit, some people were so excited they said they couldn’t sleep. But learners need their rest for the course: the 350 Yiddish levels have three to six lessons each. With every lesson requiring at least five to seven minutes, it would take a minimum of 250 hours for the average student to complete. One of our favorite lines? The sentence “mayn vayb iz keynmol nisht tsufridn” (my wife is never pleased), which sounds like the opening of a classic albeit decidedly dated Borscht Belt routine.

Apr. 14, 2021 / The death of Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff, fraudster and financier, ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

Bernie Madoff, fraudster and financier, ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Photo by Getty Images

The disgraced Ponzi schemer wrought devastation throughout the Jewish world when his crimes were revealed. Fortunes and more modest savings were lost, and so were the jobs of many who worked for Jewish institutions. “I don’t dance on people’s graves, but I’m not losing a wink of sleep over it,” said Ilene Kent, who saw her parents lose the bulk of their retirement funds to Madoff’s fraud, and later founded the Madoff Survivors Group.

Apr. 27, 2021 / Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of committing ‘crimes of apartheid’

HRW apartheid

Israeli soldiers arrest an elderly Palestinian man taking part in a demonstration alongside Israeli left-wing protesters against settlements and land confiscation, near Yatta village south of Hebron city in the occupied West Bank in January. Photo by Getty Images

The widely respected research and advocacy group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 alleged decades of persecution that could not be justified by Israel’s security needs or the stalled peace process. HRW contended that Israeli officials are using military rule to ensure a Jewish majority across the combined land of Israel and the West Bank. Israeli officials called the report “preposterous and false.”

Apr. 30, 2021 / The Mt. Meron disaster

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at Mount Meron in northern Israel to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at Mount Meron in northern Israel to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer. Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

The annual Lag B’Omer celebration on Mt. Meron, a one-of-a-kind festivity organized by hasidic Jews and attended by more than 100,000 Jewish tourists from a variety of backgrounds, turned tragic when a pedestrian ramp became overcrowded, leading to a crowd crush in which 45 died and 150 were injured. “It was a religious fantasy,” wrote Louis Keene, who had been to the site on a previous Lag B’omer festival. “It was not a fire marshal’s fantasy.”

May 10-21, 2021 / The war in Gaza

A picture taken on May 13, 2021 shows a ball of fire engulfing the Al-Walid building which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City.

A picture taken on May 13, 2021 shows a ball of fire engulfing the Al-Walid building which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Violence in Jerusalem and Gaza provoked a fierce reaction in the United States. Pro-Palestinian organizations, including several Jewish ones like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, had grown in power since the last major Gaza war in 2014 and made themselves heard on the streets and in the halls of Congress to an unprecedented degree. But leading Jewish groups pointed to violent attacks against American Jews, including one at a Los Angeles restaurant, as evidence that anti-Israel sentiment around the conflict had fueled a rise in antisemitism.

May 11, 2021 / Major study of American Jewry released

A Hasidic man crosses a New York street.

A Hasidic man crosses a New York street. Image by iStock

Pew released its first major study of American Jews since 2013. Considered the gold standard in its field, Pew’s report found deepening divides between Orthodox Jews and the less observant, a rising number of Black, Hispanic and Asian Jews, more intermarriage and increased concern over antisemitism. With 17% of Jews 18 to 29 identifying as Orthodox – compared to just 3% of those over 65 – the study offered an early indication that the religious breakdown of the community may be changing.

Jun. 13, 2021 / A fourth (and final) Israeli election

Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021

Israel’s outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021 Image by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

At age 49, Naftali Bennett became Israel’s 13th prime minister after four elections. Ousting Benjamin Netanyahu came at a price. Bennett broke several key election promises to form a coalition government with centrist Yair Lapid and the left and he had to suspend his strong nationalist plan for Israel to permanently annex the West Bank. After six months in office, the spirit of cooperation between the coalition partners is holding, but the question remains: how much longer will it last?

Jun. 24, 2021 / Surfside building collapse

Soriya Cohen shows a picture of her husband, Brad Cohen, who she said is missing after the partial collapse of the 12-story condo tower that he was in on June 24  in Surfside, Florida.

Soriya Cohen shows a picture of her husband, Brad Cohen, who was missing after the collapse of the 12-story condo tower in Surfside, Florida. By Joe Raedle/Getty

A 12-story oceanfront condominium tower in Surfside, a town with a large and diverse Jewish community just upshore from North Miami Beach, collapsed in the middle of the night, beginning a frantic search for survivors that drew rescuers from the Israeli Defense Forces and prayers from around the world. No survivors were found in the rubble after the first hour of rescue, and 98 people, about a third of them Jewish, died in the collapse.

Jul. 14, 2021 / “My Unorthodox Life” premieres

'Judaism is about values and community and lovingkindness and beautiful things,' said Julia Haart. 'I feel very proud to be a Jew.'

‘Judaism is about values and community and lovingkindness and beautiful things,’ said Julia Haart. ‘I feel very proud to be a Jew.’ Courtesy of Netflix

The Netflix series about Julia Haart, an Orthodox woman who left behind an arranged marriage and her community to become a fashion industry CEO, sparked a national conversation about the portrayal of religious Jews on television. It has been renewed for a second season. Haart’s memoir, “Brazen,” is due out in March.

Jul. 19, 2021 / Ben & Jerry’s Israel boycott

Ben & Jerry's is known for taking stances on political issues.

Ben & Jerry’s is known for taking stances on political issues. Image by iStock

After roughly a decade of pressure by progressive activists in Vermont, the famous ice cream company finally agreed to stop selling its frozen treats in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The move fell short of the call from some on the left that Ben & Jerry’s leave Israel altogether – but the Jewish establishment didn’t seem to get that memo, arguing that pulling out of the West Bank was akin to a full boycott and successfully pressuring several states and local governments to sever ties with parent company Unilever. In October, another boycott made headlines when best-selling novelist Sally Rooney refused to let her new book be translated into Hebrew by a major Israeli publisher.

Jul. 23-Aug. 8, 2021 / The Summer Olympics

A native New Yorker, Danielle Goldstein Waldman has been competing since she was 8 years old.

A native New Yorker, Danielle Goldstein Waldman has been competing since she was 8 years old. Courtesy of Jose Woldring

More than 100 Jewish athletes competed at the Summer Games in Tokyo – including a feather-wearing equestrienne, a WNBA basketball legend, a gymnast-turned-diver, and a kayaker with no legs. But perhaps our biggest hopes were placed with the Israeli baseball team, one of only six countries to compete in the sport. They finished fifth.

Jul. 24, 2021 / The death of Jackie Mason

Jackie Mason in New York City recording his album “I Want To Leave You With The Words Of A Great Comedian,” Feb. 20, 1963. (Popsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Mason was among the last of a dying breed of Borscht Belt comics. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Mason’s comedy was always extremely, never incidentally, Jewish, even when he achieved success in the mainstream. But while Mason was beloved, his legacy was complicated. Mason made a series of racist remarks about New York mayoral candidate — and later mayor — David Dinkins. He was publicly flogged for those remarks, but nevertheless went on, in 2009, to use a Yiddish slur to describe another Black politician, Barack Obama.

Aug. 11, 2021 / Town removes Nazi monument after Forward investigation

“Latvian Beehive for Freedom” monument and plaque to the Latvian Legion, a unit in the Waffen-SS in Zedelgem, Belgium

“Latvian Beehive for Freedom” monument and plaque to the Latvian Legion, a unit in the Waffen-SS in Zedelgem, Belgium

The Belgian town of Zedelgem decided to rename a local square and statue that honored Nazis, after a Forward investigation by Lev Golinkin brought it to the public’s attention earlier this year. There are still hundreds of statues and monuments in the United States and around the world honoring people who abetted or took part in the murder of Jews and others during the Holocaust.

Aug. 30, 2021 / America withdrew troops from Afghanistan

Kim Kardashian West and Rabbi Moshe Margaretten.

Kim Kardashian West and Rabbi Moshe Margaretten.

Several Jewish groups helped refugees resettle in the messy aftermath of the Taliban takeover – including a hasidic rabbi who partnered with Kim Kardashian to rescue a girls soccer team. But perhaps the most colorful person to escape was Zebulon Simentov, the self-proclaimed last Jew in Afghanistan who at first didn’t want to leave, then left, then threatened to return unless he was given $10 million, plus cash for a winter coat.

Oct. 19, 2021 / Reckoning of past misconduct in Reform and Conservative movements

Alfred Gottschalk opened the door for female rabbis -- and is accused of abusing them behind closed doors.

Alfred Gottschalk opened the door for female rabbis — and is accused of abusing them behind closed doors.

The Conservative movement published a list of rabbis who had been expelled and suspended due to misconduct. A man sued several Conservative institutions for the abuse he suffered 25 years earlier as a bar mitzvah student. A month later, the Reform movement’s seminary detailed an investigation into years of abuse by leaders of the institution – including rabbis Sheldon Zimmerman and Alfred Gottschalk.

Nov. 2, 2021 / A new era in New York City politics

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams speaks during his election night party at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge on November 02, 2021

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams speaks during his election night party at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge on November 02, 2021 Image by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Eric Adams, a former police officer and Brooklyn’s borough president with longstanding ties to the Jewish community, was elected as NYC mayor. Adams received significant support from Orthodox voting blocs in the competitive June 23 Democratic primary and attributed his victory to them. Adams and his advisors promised they will be more sensitive to certain issues that they say have not been fairly addressed by the Bill de Blasio administration.

Nov. 3, 2021 / The 50th anniversary of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

The legacy of 'Fiddler on the Roof' has far outlasted its theatrical run.

The legacy of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ has far outlasted its theatrical run. By Nikki Casey

Tradition never gets old – only older. The 1971 film directed by Norman Jewison (somehow not a Jew) turned 50 in November. Marking the occasion was Mira Fox’s essay on how various adaptations of Sholem Alecheim’s stories have treated the intermarriage subplot. Eliya Smith wrote about playing Tzeitel at 15 in an Ohio JCC production of the musical and Maura Lee Bee explained how her own time in Anatevka kick-started her conversion to Judaism. Fifty years after the final curtain, Talya Zax learned how her father’s high school production shaped the life of the cast. And finally, Irene Katz Connelly entered into the time-worn tradition, watching the “Fiddler” film for the first time. Her verdict? She should have watched it sooner to appreciate it more. Plus: Barbara Isenberg revealed that Walter Matthau wanted to play Tevye – and at least 9 other things you didn’t know about “Fiddler on the Roof.”

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    Dec 7, 2022

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