Forward Shortlist: 7 American Jews who fascinated us in 2021
Editor’s note: On Jan. 5, about two weeks after this column was published, The Washington Post reported that Jake Cohen, on of the members on our list, has been named in a lawsuit alleging racism and sexism at a food-media company where he worked from 2018 to 2020.
There’s a cook, a coach and a comic. No, this is not the start of some Jewish joke. It’s our new end-of-year list of American Jews who were in the news — or should have been.
They range in age from 23 to 71. They live on Long Island and in Los Angeles, in El Paso, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia, in western Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. One served in Congress and another is nominated for both an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe. There’s a rabbi, a hazzanit and a Yiddishist (actually two). They are fathers and daughters, writers and readers, activists and community-builders.
There are seven of them, and they are, in a word, fascinating.
For 26 years starting in 1995, Forward editors created an annual list of the 50 “most influential American Jews.” It was called the Forward 50, which has a lovely alliterative ring, and many who landed on the lists proudly included it in their bios.
Fifty people a year for 26 years. That’s 1,300 people, though some appeared more than once, like Rabbi Angela Buchdahl (2020 and 2014) and Abe Foxman (2010 and 2007), and we sometimes doubled up, as with music-producers Aaron Dressner and Jack Antonoff last year.
When we sat down to compile 2021’s list, we thought: 50 is too many. Too many for readers to absorb. Too many to make being on the list truly meaningful.
We also didn’t love the framing of “most influential.” Influence can, of course, be positive or negative, and we got blowback for including on our Forward 50 lists notorious characters who had indeed helped shape the news, but who readers found unworthy of end-of-year recognition.
Plus, we want each year’s list to feel fresh, introducing readers to people who might not dominate the headlines but are having meaningful impact on our world — any honest assessment of “most influential” American Jews would include the likes of Steven Spielberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Janet Yellen and the heads of major Jewish organizations over and over.
As I have written before, I believe the key to innovation is distinguishing between traditions and habits. It’s something I learned from the executive editor of The Times, Dean Baquet, but it’s particularly relevant in a Jewish context, given our relationship with both halacha — Jewish law — and minhag — custom.
Traditions are the core of who you are and what you do. For the Forward, that’s about independence and integrity, storytelling and community connection. Habits are the way you express those traditions based on the needs and opportunities of the moment.
The Forward 50 began as a special print section distributed at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. I’m told it was a very big deal, as all the machers at that annual conclave competed to be first to find out who among them had made the vaunted list.
We no longer live in that world — we no longer publish in print, for one thing. So we’re no longer making that list.
Instead, I asked our staff — and our readers — to nominate a relative handful of American Jews they found fascinating this year. We thought we’d try an equally alliterative Forward 5 or Forward 15, but alas, we ended up with seven, so we’re dubbing it “Forward Shortlist.”
The cook is Jake Cohen, who published a best-selling book this year and has more than 1.5 million followers across TikTok and Instagram. The coach is Elliot Steinmetz, who has led Yeshiva University’s men’s basketball team on a historic 50-game (and counting) winning streak — and is also the father of the first Orthodox player drafted by Major League Baseball. The comic is Hannah Einbinder, who wears a Star of David pendant in interviews and stars in the TV series “Hacks.”
The Shortlist also includes Debbie Nathan, a crusading journalist-turned-immigration advocate; Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Charlottesville, where hate was put on trial this fall; Cameron Bernstein, the first and most prominent Yiddish TikToker; and Sabrina Sojourner, who combines work for racial justice and LGTBQ rights with cantorial leadership on oft-unconventional occasions.
All but Einbinder answered questions that aimed to go beyond their work. Three of the six chose Passover as their favorite holiday. Breakfast = coffee for half of them. Sojourner selected her mother as her hero; Steinmetz, his children.
They’re reading memoirs by Katie Couric and Qian Julie Wang, watching “Unorthodox” and “Star Trek: Discovery” and listening to a whole host of great podcasts.
They are inspiring as well as fascinating — and humble, too.
“I’m not a big trophy guy, I don’t really care for rings or trophies,” Steinmetz said in an interview earlier this year. “For me, the goals are always the same: to get better every day, try to win every time you’re out there, and to represent the university and the surrounding Jewish community in a positive way.”
Read more about these seven fascinating American Jews in the profiles below.