WHAT A YEAR: A look back at the highs and lows, up and downs of 5778

By Joseph Aaron, Editor

What you think of, how you see 5778, the Jewish year now coming to a close, depends more than in most years on where you stand on things.

Which makes sense since we are now living in a world that is more divided than ever, where tribalism rules and where people see the same things very differently.

And so the Trumpization of issues was very evident in the Jewish world in 5778. For some Jews, 5778 was a great year, historic even, in that the American Embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem, the deal with Iran was blown up, at least the American commitment to it, and Israel passed a law which officially declared Israel to be the nation state of the Jewish people.

For those who have long wanted such things to take place, this was their year. The combination of Trump and Bibi made their dreams come true. For those in the Jewish world who have objections and worries and concerns about what those moves mean, who fear they are not in the best interest of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, 5778 was a year of nightmares.

Indeed, how divided the Jewish world is was seen clearly in a number of polls which showed the vast majority of Israelis are supporters of Trump and the vast majority of American Jews are not. It also showed that while almost all Orthodox Jews like Trump, almost all Conservative and Reform Jews do not.

That increasing split between Jews here and Jews there and among Jews here was seen in a whole lot of other ways. A plan to create a separate but equal egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall was stymied by political machinations at the behest of Israeli rabbis who oppose the idea. There were also fights about who should have the power to decide which American rabbi’s conversions will be recognized by Israel. A Conservative rabbi in Israel was arrested for performing a traditional wedding.

Shandah, the Jewish concept of bringing shame upon the Jewish people, had a field day in the Jewish year now leaving. Harvey Weinstein, a well-known Jew with a very Jewish name, ignited a firestorm, gave birth to a new and powerful movement by using his power as a movie mogul to sexually harass, abuse and attack a large number of women.

The revelation of Weinstein’s behavior was followed by revelations about a whole bunch of other Jews, in entertainment, business, journalism and elsewhere. Indeed, incredibly, the majority of men found to have sexually harassed women, were Jews. From Les Moonves, the head of CBS, to Leon Wieseltier to Mark Halperin to Louis CK to James Levine and on and on and on.

The fact that so many Jewish men were at the forefront of harassing women should have led to some soul searching about why that is, what that says about us, but it did not.

It was a truly odd kind of year. The ceremony at which the American embassy in Jerusalem was dedicated featured an opening benediction and a closing blessing by two evangelical pastors, both of whom said words, used references that the Jews attending the ceremony could not say ‘amen’ to.

And even though Trump cited absolutely no proof that Iran had not meticulously abided by the terms of the Iran deal, even though all top American military officials urged Trump to stay in it, even though all top Israeli military officials urged Trump to stay in it and urged Bibi not to push him to get out, get out he did. What the consequences of that will be will perhaps become clearer in the new Jewish year.

Prince William

There was good news in 5778. Prince William became the first member of the British royal family ever to visit Israel. Israeli actress Gal Gadot was a huge smash in her big hit movie, ‘Wonder Woman.’ An Israeli singer won the Eurovision contest which, though Americans have never heard of it, is a very big deal in Europe and the Middle East. That an Israeli won, and that Israel will host the competition next year, was yet another of many signals this year of how accepted the state of Israel is by the world and how respected Jews are.

That idea however was challenged for a while when the government of Poland decided to pass a law that made it a criminal offense to use the words ‘Polish Death Camps.’ Only Nazi death camps would be acceptable as Poland tried to claim they were innocent bystanders, indeed victims themselves, when in fact in many cases they were willing accomplices. After an outcry from Israel, American Jewry and around the world, Poland finally reversed itself and got rid of the idiotic law that was intended to pretend history did not happen.

Gal Gadot 

Jewish students and a Jewish teacher were among those killed in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A Jewish editor was among those killed in a massacre at a daily newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. At the very end of the Jewish year, a Jewish video gamer opened fire during a tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, killing two and then fatally shooting himself.

Israel celebrated its 70th birthday in 5778. Jewish comedian Roseanne destroyed her career in 5778 when, after she returned to TV in a show that won monster ratings, she sent out a middle of the night tweet evoking the ugliest images of racism and racial hatred. Crazy, hateful tweets in the wee hours, just like her hero, the president.

Roseann Barr

Speaking of which, the president who used to be a hero to several Jews lost some of that hero worship in 5778 when his longtime personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, fingered him as ordering him to commit a crime. Trump’s longtime journalistic enabler, David Pecker of the National Enquirer, who we learned protected Trump by keeping his tawdry secrets in a safe, sought immunity so he could testify against Trump. Immunity was also given to Trump’s longtime money man, Alan Wieselberg, CFO of the Trump Organization.

All those Jews involved in the increasing mess surrounding Trump, all now flipping, made life even more complicated for Jay Sekulow, the Jew for Jesus, who is Trump’s real lawyer while Giuliani plays one on TV. Many believe that in the new Jewish year 5779 Trump’s Jewish son in law Jared Kushner might find himself squarely in Robert Mueller’s line of fire.

But Trump did have one Jew he could still count on. While all the Jews around him were pleading guilty or being granted immunity, Alan Dershowitz continued to defend Trump every chance he got, which was a lot since he literally was on at least one cable news show every single day of the week, and even on the weekends, as he complained he had free time on his hands since he wasn’t being invited to as many parties on Martha’s Vineyard.

Michael Cohen 

5778 was a year in which the Jewish world lost so many talented, accomplished members of the tribe. Among those passing on to a better world were authors Philip Roth and Aharon Applefeld;  Claude Lanzmann, who captured the mundane horror of the Holocaust in his epic nine hour documentary ‘Shoah;’ playwright Neil Simon, who seemed to produce one hit after another, once having four shows on Broadway at the same time; noted historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis; David Wyman, author  of the groundbreaking ‘Abandonment of the Jews’ which chronicled how alone we were during the Holocaust; brilliant publisher Si Newhouse, who ran a magazine empire that included Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker; comedian Marty Allen, known for his tagline ‘hello dare;’ actress Charlotte Rae, Mrs. Garrett on the TV show ‘Facts of Life;’ Richard Siegel, who transformed Judaism by making it accessible in a way it had never been with his innovative book, ‘The Jewish Catalog;’  handbag designer Judith Lieber, brilliant filmmaker Milos Forman; brilliant TV producer Steven Bochco.

Neil Simon 

The Jewish world lost two Jews who left us  much too early with the passing of journalist Charles Krauthammer, whose eloquent columns often included strong support of Israel and whose life as a quadriplegic was an inspiration. Anthony Bourdain, who traveled the world and with an amazing amount of gusto introduced Americans to foods and cultures unknown to them, inexplicably committed suicide. For someone so full of life it was a stark reminder of the mystery of the Jewish soul and the human psyche.

The Jewish world lost two spiritual giants, Rabbi Ahron Leib Shteinman, one of the greatest sages of our time, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish texts was surpassed only by his deep understanding of the essence of Judaism’s call to us that we all act like a mensch. And a mensch was the perfect description of Chicago Rabbi Chaim Goldzweig who had a wonderful sense of humor and who knew more about kosher food than basically anyone else on earth.

And speaking of Chicago, 5778 was a year filled with milestones, in which Temple Sholom celebrated its 150th  anniversary, Ida Crown Jewish Academy celebrated its 75th, Beth Shalom celebrated its 50th, Beth  Hillel Bnai Emunah celebrated its 60th, Temple Beth Israel celebrated its 100th, Chicago Jewish Historical Society celebrated its 40th, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El celebrated its 70th. May they and all Chicago Jewish organizations celebrate many more Rosh Hashanahs.

In Chicago, 5778 saw Chicago Jewish Day School move into own campus, the merger of Jewish Child and Family Service with the Jewish Vocational Service, the merger of Lakeside Congregation with Solel, the merger of Temple Judea Mizpah with Beth Emet.  A national magazine named the hot dogs at Shaevitz Kosher Deli the best in the world. Laurie Zoloth, an Orthodox Jew, was named head of the divinity school at the University of Chicago. A Chicago rabbi, Debra Newman Kamin, was named president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. The governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, visited Israel. A Jew, JB Pritzker, was nominated to run against Rauner in the upcoming election. A former Chicago cop was named the national Jewish community’s anti-terrorism czar. An African American, hearing impaired, senior citizen, Baptist convert was ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew Seminary, which, as it happens, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 5778.

And in 5778, the oldest couple ever to make aliyah were Chicagoans Norm and Doris Levitz, who moved to Israel to live after more than 90 years in Chicago and more than 70 years of marriage.

And then there was this, which involves both the old year and the new year. In 5778, an Israeli equestrian rider withdrew from the upcoming world championships since the competition will take place on Yom Kippur. Israeli rider Dan Kramer sent a letter to the international federation saying that he would not compete due to the competition’s conflict with the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Inspiring, showing Jewish pride. But this being the world and the Jewish world we live in, that wasn’t the end of it. “I decided not to join the other members of the Israeli national team and not to participate in the upcoming world championships in the United States, because the competition is taking place on Yom Kippur and I want to honor this day as well as the Israeli public and Jewish Diaspora,” Kramer wrote.

Which angered his teammates, with one accusing him of making “serious and damaging accusations” in the Israeli media in an “attempt to get attention and recognition from the public by hurting us with defamation and inaccurate accusations.”

“I am strong about our religion, Yom Kippur is a day that I always respected and fasted on,” wrote one. “Religion and tradition are personal things; an office or federation does not have to determine how we spend our Yom Kippur, we are free to decide. This is a championship that takes place once every four years and serves as a prelude to the Olympics. We cannot put our careers, our lives, in the hands of a ministerial decision.” An Israeli team that competes on Yom Kippur is punished severely, though equestrian team officials said that the team has received assurances from the relevant authorities that they would not be penalized for participating in the competition.

That pretty much sums up the year. Nothing in Judaism is simple these days. Everyone sees things only from their perspective. Even things that seem good are often the start of a fight. So much Jewish pride, so much Jewish anger, so much Jewish discord.

Let’s hope in the new year we bring the sources of Jewish pride with us and leave the sources of Jewish disunity behind us.

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