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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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.”