Miriam Herschlag
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Voices of 2020: Blog posts that made sense of the chaos

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. And also a year when peace in the Middle East looked possible. These writers offered wisdom when we needed it most

There are no intermissions in the eternal drama of history. All things are in motion, or being set so, churning, for the most part, below the surface. But there are times when it’s clear to even the least perceptive among us that we are in the vortex of historic change. 2020 was epochal and we will be swept in its swirl for the foreseeable future. We knew it and, as every aspect of our reality was rearranged, Times of Israel bloggers wrote — oh, did they write — generating far more posts than we have published any other year since the site’s founding.

On March 22, as the novel coronavirus careened wildly across the globe – and two days after the first COVID-19 patient death in Israel – TOI blogger Sally Berkovic exhorted readers to preserve the ephemera of this historic time. “Save that notice from the kosher supermarket reassuring customers that there will be enough matzah for Passover…,” she wrote in A digital geniza: Collecting COVID-19 ephemera, plugging the National Library of Israel’s Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive initiative.

Masks in the breeze. (Miriam Herschlag)

It put me to thinking. What would I submit to such an archive, apart from the red and white polka-dot mask from my niece’s wedding? The answer: Times of Israel blog posts. Really. The year’s combined output adds up to a rich repository of 2020 ephemera, a record of what we saw, wondered, debated, experienced and felt – through the prism of Israel and the Jewish world – about the pandemic and its cruel ravages, steep costs, surprise twists and unexpected gifts.

And not just the pandemic. The Middle East was transformed by a sudden, sharp turn toward peace; the United States, led by an iconoclastic and sui generis president, was polarized to breaking point; the wheels appeared to have fallen off Israeli politics; identity feuds cranked up to full volume, and the mainstay issues — Jewish ideas, anti-Semitism, Holocaust memory, the Iranian threat — also retained their cache as eminently worthy topics.

Here then, is a handful of posts, gems, selected in a most unscientific and inherently unsatisfactory manner (I promise, the moment I pressed publish I thought oh no, how could I have left that one out?). And yet, it’s an impressive collection representing a fraction of the treasures to be found in this unparalleled marketplace of ideas.

Enjoy reading these anew or again, and who knows, maybe you’ll decide to come aboard, apply for a blog, and join the conversation in 2021.

An epic epidemic of pandemic proportions

Multiple lockdowns and self-isolation sent us all indoors and clacking away at keyboards to chronicle what we were experiencing. In this post, written in late April during Israel’s first lockdown, Daniel Gordis heard his Jerusalem neighbors’ Sabbath prayers and concluded “we are locked down in the one place Jews would want to be locked down.”

Only here

Illustrative: A Jewish man prays at his homes the city Safed, April 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

* * *

Remember this beautiful good-humored piece of compassion? As we headed toward a sad, anxious, confusing Passover, it was Rabbi Sue Fendrick who gave us permission to not obsess over Judaism’s most obsessive holiday.

Go ahead, have a shvach seder

(Illustration by Avi Katz)

* * *

Longtime contributor Shira Pasternak Be’eri wrote several coronavirus-linked posts, notably on Wearing the damn mask, and this recent impassionated (Hamilton-inflected) post for anyone still on the fence when it comes to getting vaccinated.

I am not throwing away my shot

An Israeli medical worker holds a coronavirus vaccination, at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A man walks in Bnei Brak. April 01, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

* * *

And one more, because one reason for diversity on an opinion platform is to cultivate empathy for those from different circles. Ultra-Orthodox Haredi communities came under intense fire as they appeared to flaunt the rules of social distancing and the science – and then suffered the dreadful results, so it felt important to listen to the plea of Rabbi Menachem Bombach for more understanding in I’m an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. We are not criminals.

Is this peace normal? Is this normalization peace?

Living in Israel has taught me two critical lessons. The first is never to imagine things can’t get much worse. (Remember what was bugging you in 2019? Me neither.) But the second is to never imagine things can’t get much better. And even with the deadly devastation and disruptions of the Coronavirus, the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan, followed by the astounding normalization deal with Morocco, injected dizzying optimism into many in the region and beyond.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna played – and continues to play – a role in the forging of ties with the United Arab Emirates. “At times I can hardly believe the things that have happened to me,” he wrote in:

How I became Chief Rabbi of the UAE and why that matters to global Jewry

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna address an interfaith iftar at the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. May 14, 2019 (Courtesy)

* * *

And just like that, the unthinkable became almost commonplace. Like, how about that Friday afternoon when UAE Youth Affairs Minister Shamma Sohail AlMazrui attended a Kabbalat Shabbat Zoom service with the Jewish Community of the Emirates and, as captured in this eloquent post, expressed the wish for our common humanity to unite us and for our “common faith in a brighter future [to] heal this wounded world.”:

The Abraham Accord is the starting point for radical tolerance and love in our region

Shamma Sohail AlMazrui, minister of state for youth affairs in the United Arab Emirates. (Courtesy)

* * *

And then there was the time the Jewish Bahraini ambassador, Houda Nonoo, hopped over to Israel for a visit or two.

My first trip to Israel – when dream became reality

Amb. Houda Nonoo’s airline ticket. (Courtesy)

Israeli politics: Voting the third time wasn’t the charm

Coming soon to a new year near us is Israel’s fourth election in two years. Whatever else it is, it will be a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who Yossi Klein Halevi describes in this important post as our most talented leader and our most destructive politician:

Netanyahu’s two Israels

(Illustration by Avi Katz)

Trumpiest year ever

All the feels about Donald Trump (has anyone ever been neutral?) were projected onto a post by former longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. The piece calling “45” a demagogue and backing Joe Biden’s candidacy was far and away the most widely read post of the year, eliciting scads of appreciation and heaps of scorn, a dynamic that reflected the extreme polarization in America and among our readers.

Trump is bad for America and bad for the Jews

Former US vice president Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. (AP Photo, File)

* * *

You can read one of many rebuttals here, this one lauding President Trump’s pro-Israel record and blasting the Democratic Party for embracing anti-Zionists.

Still no vaccine against anti-Semitism

The oldest hatred is highly adaptable – it switches sides and keeps up with the times, by adopting the most advanced delivery platforms. (Witness the anti-Semitic “zoombombing” of synagogues and Jewish schools. Now that’s some cutting-edge hate right there.) A recent decision by an EU court upholding what is essentially a ban on kosher slaughter infuriated many (many!) Jews. A shocked and shaken Alex Benjamin, who heads the pro-Israel advocacy group, EIPA in Brussels, slammed the ruling thus:

The moment the Jew became a second class citizen in Europe again

A member of the Jewish community returns from synagogue in Antwerp, Belgium, July 4, 2020. (Stock)

* * *

But wait! There was also this delightful “love balm” from Boston minister Ed Gaskin, who prayed with his feet by attending synagogue services following America’s deadliest anti-Semitic attack – and discovered a Judaism that harmonized with his own faith.

After the Tree of Life tragedy, I went to Shabbat services and never stopped

Ed Gaskin (Courtesy)

Which brings us to identity

Spurred by the agonizing, videotaped police killing of George Floyd, America amped up its reckoning with race – and not only race, but with the myriad overlapping, sometimes contradictory categories that comprise identity and make up the stories we tell about ourselves and each other.

Noah Shufutinsky, a student at George Washington University majoring in Judaic Studies, found himself in the classroom of a history prof who pretended for years to be Afro-Latin. “Parroting JVP talking points,” wrote Shufutinsky, “my teacher blamed Jews and Israel for American racism, undermining the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Jessica Krug’s leftist blackface pit my peoples against each other

Noah Shufutinsky (Courtesy)

* * *

The Jewish world, too, is facing up to its own white- and Ashkenazi-centric bias with help from loud, proud Mizrachi voices including that of Egyptian-Iraqi Jewish writer Rachel Wahba. Rachel enabled thousands of readers to honor the memories of victims of a horrific episode in the history of the Iraqi Jews in this riveting post:

Farhud Day: Remembering the screams

The Farhud, Baghdad 1941. (Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive)

* * *

The roar of the Me Too movement, which began in late 2017, continued to reverberate this past year, and Neshama Carlebach offered two deeply personal, yet profoundly relevant meditations on her life and art as the daughter of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In the earlier post, Learning to believe again, Neshama is in a new stage of her journey, in which her father is no longer the center of her healing process. In this, the second, post, she reopens the ethical question surrounding deeply inspiring art that is created by human beings who deeply disappoint us.

Carlebach is my name too

(Illustration by Avi Katz)

* * *

And this dramatic reckoning with the taboo of LGBTQ members of the Orthodox Jewish community. Regardless of sexuality, “it is not good for a person to be alone,” quotes Rabbi Benny Lau, and delivers groundbreaking, practical Halachic guidance on coming out, finding a partner, tying the knot, and having children:

On same-sex couples in the Orthodox Jewish community

Illustrative: Religious Jewish activists protest same-sex parenting and LGBTQ families, across from LGBTQ advocates in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Our dwindling Holocaust survivors

The dramatic twists of the year didn’t stop the inexorable results of the simple passage of time, and in 2020, we came one year closer to a time when there will no longer be any living firsthand witnesses to the Holocaust. The stark objects that remain bear witness for generations to come. Esther Toporek Finder’s dad said he survived a Nazi concentration camp by climbing into a pot wearing wooden clogs. The tale made much more sense when she finally saw the pot and the shoes

My father hid from the Nazis in a coffee pot. True story.

Shirt in Foreground Worn by a Political Prisoner in Auschwitz. Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim, Poland. ©Musealia (Courtesy)

The Palestinian question lingers on

Mosab Hassan Yousef, the exiled son of a founding Hamas leader, embodies the Palestinian tug-of-war between fear and hope. Reflecting on the Abraham Accords between Israel and Gulf, the “Green Prince” sees a model for breaking free from irreconcilable dogmas and imagining what is possible.

A Palestinian dreams of Isaac and Ishmael

‘In my vision of a future peace, the Palestinian leadership would be wise to let the Jews build their Third Temple on the Temple Mount.’ (iStock)

Iranian generals in the crosshairs

Iran’s top military commander may have deserved to die in a US drone attack at the beginning of 2020, but was the assassination a smart decision? Lynette Nusbacher, an intelligence veteran, argued that decapitating the competent senior technocrats of hostile governments can be counterproductive.

A death well spent: Soleimani dies for confrontation

Senior Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, at a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (not seen) and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, September 18, 2016 (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Loss and memory: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

It was a year of great loss, sorrow beyond measure for too many families. The topics of death, grief, Zoom funerals and memorials were integrally present on the blogging platform, where communities of readers can offer solace. I wish all of you treasured bloggers and readers health: speedy recovery to those unwell, and comfort in the good memories of those who died.

We take these last lines to remember the towering teacher and writer that was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died November 7 in London at the age of 72. The former British Chief Rabbi and globally acclaimed thought leader contributed his insights on this platform every week starting in 2013. In fact, his blog continues posthumously, as Rabbi Sacks had prepared a full Jewish calendar year of essays for his “Covenant & Conversation” series on the Torah readings.

His blog is here. And an outpouring of moving and insightful remembrances and tributes from others can be found here on his topic page.

Yehi Zichro Baruch

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Courtesy of Sacks)
About the Author
Opinion and Blogs editor at The Times of Israel (Cover photo needlework by Yocheved Herschlag Muffs.)
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