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Sally Abrams
Sally Abrams
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2021: The Jewish leading lights who helped me tell our story this year

9 writers, podcasters, and scholars whose insight and analysis challenged, enlightened, inspired, and sustained me on the days I needed it the most
Credit: Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay
Credit: Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay

Telling the story of Israel — the place and the people — means relying on a deep bench of writers, podcasters, and scholars to provide fresh insight and incisive analysis.

Each person listed below was indispensable in how we brought Israel and the global Jewish people to the thousands of students, educators, and community members we reached virtually this year. Their work was also personally meaningful–challenging, enlightening, inspiring, and sustaining me on the days I needed it the most.

While I continue to rely on the ‘go-to’ sources I listed in my 2019 and 2020 roundups, 2021 brought new material that I found enormously valuable. I want to recognize and thank the people listed below who taught me and countless others this year.

Matti Friedman:When many Westerners peer out at the world, what they’re really looking for is a mirror”, writes Friedman in this brilliant essay, “Israel’s Problems Are Not Like America’s”. He goes on to describe (starting with the film ‘Exodus’) an American tendency to imagine Israelis as a reflection of themselves. During the May 2021 war between Israel and Hamas, Friedman wrote “…many Americans are now using their image of home to construct their image of Israel” and in so doing, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has become jumbled up with American ideas about race.” Friedman holds up a mirror to our self-referential point of view, cautioning us that conflating the problems of two very different countries will not make either countries problems easier to understand or solve.

Haviv Rettig Gur: If you want to understand the complex dispute surrounding the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, turn to The Times of Israel’s senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur. His thorough and carefully researched piece, “In Sheikh Jarrah, anonymous actors and an absent state have created a powder keg” unpacks myriad legal and historical issues. It should be required reading for anyone who wishes to move beyond slogans and sound bites to understand this complicated situation.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger: Her exquisitely written blog is a must-read any time, but never more so than during the May war between Israel and Hamas. Writing from her home in Jerusalem, the varied emotional tenor of her pieces–hopeful, anguished resolute– brought readers deep into her experience.  She is fed up with those who judge Israel through a filter of lies, writing: “Once I felt if only I explained more, if only I explained better, surely you would understand that I’m fighting for my life. Not anymore.” But toward her fellow Israelis, tender hope remains. After days of civil unrest that erupted between Jews and Arabs, she wrote:  “Do we embrace today’s weariness and burnt bridges as the limit of what we can aspire to, in all our shared tomorrows? Or do we say — there must be ways to live together better, and we will seek them out, weary or not?”

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik: Listening daily to the Bible 365 podcast is a gift I’ve given myself this year. Six days a week, in episodes of 15-20 minutes, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik leads his listeners sequentially through the Hebrew scriptures (Torah, Prophets, Writings).  He has more than a masterful understanding of the text; Soloveichik brings an extraordinary breadth of literary, musical, historical, and artistic sources into each episode. For me, the podcast embodies the concept of “dayenu”—if he’d only taught me the bible, dayenu, it would be enough, but he’s also taught me about Rembrandt and Churchill and Lincoln and even baseball! Rabbi Soloveichik is a man of deep and profound faith in God and the Jewish people. His podcast is nourishment for mind and soul.

Yossi Klein Halevi: How do you stand proudly in your own story while still creating understanding across differences? Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: With an Extensive Epilogue of Palestinian Responses is someone who can answer that question and answer it well.  It was our honor to bring him to Minnesota Hillel this fall to address students and community leaders on this critical topic.  The lecture can be found here. One of his most important and thought-provoking ideas (45:50-48:40) is that being a peacemaker means understanding “Love your neighbor as yourself” beyond the conventional way we think of it. Klein Halevi said, “The prerequisite for loving your neighbor is genuine self love….that is the foundation for loving the other. I believe the basis for a genuine universalism, a genuine love of humanity is love of your own people, your own story first. If you can’t love your own people, how can you really love another people, another story?” 

Dara Horn: Dara Horn has noticed something. People are fascinated by the stories and sites that mark the destruction of Jewish life, but what about actual living Jews, whose rich and varied expressions of Judaism endure, and for whom antisemitism also endures? “People love dead Jews”, Horn asserts. “Living ones? Not so much”. In her volume of provocative essays, People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present, Horn explores and explains this paradox with unflinching honesty. She stands firm on what living Jews have to offer the world. “Judaism is a counterculture that weaves its way through the entire history of the West”, she said in a Jewish Review of Books interview.  “Introduce people to that counterculture, point out the places in which Judaism is sending a different message than the general culture”, she urges. “Jewish history is a master class in resilience.”

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein: Jewish resilience is the thread that links every community profiled in Exile: Portraits of a Jewish Diaspora. Swedish born Hernroth-Rothstein is an intrepid, gutsy reporter who spent two years traveling to far-flung (and often persecuted) Jewish enclaves around the world. From the Tunisian island of Djerba to Iran to Siberia, and many other unlikely places in between, Hernroth-Rothstein revels in the beauty of Jewish expression found in these diverse communities. Welcomed like family wherever she went, her book is poignant testimony to the bond of Jewish peoplehood.

Shira Pasternak Be’eri: High Holiday prayers take on another dimension altogether when a loved one is fighting for his life. And, in the midst of such pain, can we notice and respond to the anguish of others? That’s where Times of Israel blogger Shira Pastenak Be’eri found herself this Rosh Hashanah, attending services at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem while her husband recuperated from a near-fatal cardiac arrest.  A High Holiday Embrace recounts an intimate moment of comfort between Shira and a woman whose distress seemed even greater than her own.  “May we find the right ways to hold each other and meet each other’s needs,” Shira writes in this stunning essay.

David Suissa: Suissa is Editor of the Jewish Journal and a prolific writer in his own right. His wide-ranging columns defy categorization, covering an enormous range of topics: Jewish communal life, Israel, politics, holidays, the pandemic, and even the human imagination.  His essays always enlighten, and often inspire.  In “There’s No Jewish Future Without Jewish Pride”, Suissa explains why he’s proud to be a Jew:

That pride is rooted not in the transient winds of the moment but in the timeless echoes of the past. I’m a proud Jew not because Israel did something great yesterday, or because a Jewish organization did something cool last week, or because I just read an inspirational sermon. I’m a proud Jew because I belong to an extraordinary people with a tradition that has sustained us for thousands of years.

It is beautiful and meaningful message to take with us into 2022 and beyond.

Who told the story of Israel — the place and the people — in a way that you found inspiring this year? I invite you to add to the list in the comments thread below.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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