Jewish Year in Review 2011

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Click photo to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown.

We measure time through the events that shape it. Every year at this season, magazines and television shows take us back through a year of the events that have most recently shaped society. Although this is not our new year, I thought it might be interesting to do a variation of the events that shaped Jewish lives in 2011.

Jerusalem held its first full marathon with 10,000 runners from over 40 countries. We also celebrated Dan Shechtman from Technion University, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. The current Pope exonerated the Jews of the charge of killing Jesus, and in a slightly less significant retraction, Richard Goldstone backtracked on his report that Israel killed innocent civilians during the last Gaza offensive. The Supreme Court of the United States heard the Zivotovsky case, protesting the absence of the word Israel on the passport of a child who was born in Israel to American parents.

Not all is good news across the shores, however. Former president of Israel Moshe Katsav began a seven-year jail sentence for rape, and lawyers for Agriprocessors’ Sholom Rubashkin appealed and lost against his 27-year prison sentence for 86 accounts of fraud. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords missed a near assassination and is in recovery. And in 2011, debates between the secular and religious in Israel have risen to a fever pitch. Who knows how this tension will further erupt in the year ahead?

The Arab Spring brought a shakedown to the Middle East with a strange mixture of relief and anxiety for Israel. Some believe that this grass-roots movement inspired the Israeli tent protests, where tens of thousands took to the streets in the hottest summer months and lived in tents to oppose the failure of the government to provide affordable housing for all its citizens. It all started because one 25-year old woman was sick of her rent being raised and took her anger to Facebook. Speaking of protests, we had Jewish protesters occupying Wall Street during Simchat Torah with hakafot (circle dancing) around Zuccotti Park, with one protester calling it, “Awesome. The best Simchat Torah EVER.”

The High Holiday season also brought relief; Gilad Shalit was finally freed after years of incarceration and returned to his family and his people. But Alan Gross, who is still being held by the Cuban government, was prosecuted in 2011 and given a 15-year sentence. Protests are happening for his freedom around the world, but they haven’t been loud enough. Tamar Epstein is still an aguna, even after her case was discussed in the New York Times and the Washington Post

If you’re not sure what the best Jewish book of 2011 is you can look at Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s book that was published in 2011, One Hundred Great Jewish Books (few actually published in 2011). This spring, Austin Ratner won $100,000 through the Sami Rohr Prize for his book The Jump Artist. Intriguingly, the culturally Jewish novelist David Guterson won the Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award this year, for what, I will not tell you. Matisiyahu fans already know he shaved off his beard in 2011, prompting one journalist to claim in the Huffington Post: “Never before in the history of our ancient people has one man's beard caused so much panic.”

This past year, we said our final goodbyes to the singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman and to the American historian, Paula Hyman. As settler violence spiked, we lost former Knesset member Hanan Porat, a founder of the settler movement. Avner Treinin, an award-winning Israeli poet and chemistry professor died in October, and Berton “Bert” Schneider, a co-creator of The Monkees and a producer of the classic “Easy Rider,” died this past month. So did Christopher Hitchens, a very unlikely Jew and proclaimed atheist, who found out he was Jewish as an adult. We also mourn Rabbi Avraham Moshe Dunner, head of the Conference of European Rabbis, as we scratch our heads about the bizarre murder of kabbalist Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira.

I’d love to hear what you think are the Jewish achievements and events that shaped 2011. Please email me at What will we do in 2012/5772 to make history? What constitutes a Jewish moment of significance? I’ll let you decide.

Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at

Posted on January 2, 2012 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S., World.