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Breaking down the Forward 50

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This year’s Forward 50 list is out, which means plenty of Jewish machers and shakers are smiling – or, in the case of those who didn’t make the cut, grumbling. We’ve put together our own panel of experts to weigh in on the list (and invite you to chime in via the comments section below, where we’ll hopefully be carrying on the conversation for a few days).

It’s worth reading the full descriptions of each Forward 50 selection. For now, here are the “Top Picks” on the list: Michael Mukasey, President Bush’s pick for attorney general; Elyse Frishman, the rabbi who edited the Reform movement’s new prayer book; Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, the creative minds behind “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”; Sheldon Adelson, casino mogul and philanthropist with a new foundation reportedly set to dole out up to $200 million per year, and Peter Deutch, the former Democratic congressman whose now working to create a movement of Hebrew-language charter schools.

First my thoughts:

If, as the Forward claims, the list really is about recognizing those who “are doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves” – where are the authors of perhaps the two most debated essays of the year: Noah Feldman and Alvin Rosenfeld.

Certainly in Orthodox circles, no article generated more debate and sermons than Feldman’s essay in the NYT Mag, in which he paints his yeshiva high school as primitive for allegedly leaving him out of a reunion photo and not publishing his family announcements because he married a non-Jew. In general, intermarriage may seem like an old story, but in many ways it still is the story in American Jewish life – and, however flawed, Feldman’s article was the focal point of the issue this year.

And where is Rosenfeld, who sparked a national controversy with his essay, “‘Progressive Jewish Thought’ and the New Anti-Semitism,” published by the American Jewish Committee? Coupling him with Cecilie Surasky, of Muzzle Watch, would have been a good entry addressing the raging debate over whether the Jewish Left is defaming Israel or the mainstream Jewish community is stifling all criticism of Israel.

I loved the culture picks, all very smart, but not thrilled with the idea that telling a few Jewish jokes in two movies merits a Top Pick for Rogen and Apatow. (While we’re on the topic, far be it from me to take issue with YIVO or the brains at the Yiddish Forward, but the word is s-h-l-u-b.) Much more significant on the cultural front, I think, is Michael Chabon’s increasing focus on the Jewish condition. He’s on the list, but is more deserving of being in the “Top Picks” than Rogen & Apatow.

Enough quibbling. Overall, the list is great, and anyone with an interest in Jewish life would do well to give it a thorough read. I’ll end with praise for one of many smart picks: Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the top Chabad guy on the West Coast. The choice is strong on two levels: It speaks to the fact that Chabad is taking over the world – and that it is doing so because of the people on the ground, not back at some headquarters in New York.

Now for the guest experts:

David Kelsey, associate director of business at Heeb Magazine
It wouldn’t be the Forward without some ostensible inner conflict. On the one hand, the Forward is sympathetic to Abe Foxman’s “prescience” that led to the “bruising battle” over his reluctance to give recognition to the Armenian genocide. On the other hand, Andrew Tarsy’s rebellion, dismissal, and reinstatement over his stand proved the ADL is “capable of being nudged in the right direction when it strays.” But it is no contradiction, really. Tarsy is right, but Foxman is shrewd. And sometimes you have to choose.

I found the listing of Rabbi Eric Yoffie most appropriate. He is a leader willing to challenge the status quo, but thoughtfully, even disarmingly. But Yoffie is also a shrewd strategist, with a firm understanding of game theory, often at the expense of the Conservative Movement, demonstrated by his encouragement of “re-ritualization.”

In many ways, Rabbi Yoffie is a traditionalist, a quintessential rabbi, challenging his constituency to become more committed Jews, and better human beings. He is Reform in his willingness to challenge gentiles morally as well as Jews.

But Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the JTS, seems a more speculative choice for inclusion as a religion member of the Forward 50. Yes, he has conceded that the Conservative Movement has had “failure on message,” but this is hardly an assessment restricted to those privy to the data of the focus groups. Anyone at a Jewish Renewal drum circle could tell you that. Britney Spears knows the Conservative Movement has “failure on message.” So the Forward is probably including him more because he has filled a very difficult position, and for what he might do. And that’s notable, but perhaps not Forward Fifty notable, as he is not quite yet “making a difference,” at least not one that we know about yet. Of course, one could say the same thing about Michael Mukasey, the Orthodox Jew to be the next attorney general, but that would be a silly argument. The Forward’s choice of leading with Mukasey is quite reasonable, and signals, among other more important issues, the continued rise of Modern Orthodox Jews in power in the general American landscape, never mind the Jewish one.

In case anyone has any doubt as to the sincerity of the Forward’s insistence that, “Membership in the 50 doesn’t mean that the Forward endorses what these individuals do or say,” this should be put to rest by their inclusion of Norman Podhoretz, granddaddy of the Neocons. Though respectfully listing his accomplishments, they did note his “sharp right turn” in the late 60’s, and their speculation that if Giuliani wins the presidency, “there’s no telling what kind of influence Podhoretz may wield,” made me shiver enough to close the window.


Amy Klein, religion writer at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and a former reporter at the Forward

While I completely support the inclusion of Jewish scribes Shalom Auslander and Michael Chabon as the cultural icons for this years Forward 50’s list of most influential people – after all, they write about Jewish topics, although not always in the most laudatory terms –- I shudder at the inclusion of a duo that gave us “Superbad,” perhaps the most offensive movie of the year.

Maybe I’m in a minority here, but I’m a single Jewish woman who is tired of watching perfect love stories between Jewish men and their perfect, non-Jewish girlfriends (“Knocked Up,” “Prime,” and any romantic comedy starring Ben Stiller). Are these guys the movers and shakers of the Jewish community? Is this the image we want to continually perpetuate – yet another next generation of uber-wimps: the slope-shouldered, weak-chested, beaten down Jewish male who pines for the once unattainable, but now very achievable, shiksa goddess? Who are these non-Jewish women dating anyway that make by comparison our bespectacled nerds so lovable? When are we going to see a film about a neurotic-but lovable Jewish woman hooking up with a muscular uber-shaygitz who knows how to fix things around the house and is impressed by her strength?

At least Borat was a satire (why isn’t he on the list again, his influence did extend in 2007?). Sascha Baron Cohen is not the same-old, same-old Jewish nerd, and he’s not a victim either; he’s the aggressor and he’s also a hottie (without the mustache). Of course, he did marry his shiksa goddess (who converted), so maybe there is no winning when it comes to Jewish men.

When it comes to promoting positive images for Jews, I think Borat spins the Jewish stereotype on its head. Rogen and Apatow – however proud they may be of their Jewish cultural heritage –- do not.

Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News and the former managing editor of the Forward
I’ve got to give a self-serving shout-out to the five (by my count) New Jersey Jews who made the list: Abe Foxman, Eric Yoffie, June Walker, Elyse Frishman and David Brog. If that’s a sorry count considering the size of the Jewish population, the quintet makes up for it in stature.

So why doesn’t the Garden State have a higher percentage of leading Jewish thinkers and players? It’s a Jersey thing, I think: I often say that we are the largest Jewish weekly without a metropolis, or as Ben Franklin famously said, NJ is a keg that is tapped at both ends – Philadelphia and Boston. Jewish creativity is inspired and nurtured in the cities and in pioneering communities in the South and West. Cities benefit from an influx of new bodies and fresh ideas, in combination (and sometimes opposition) with the wealth and power of their establishments. Communities on the Jewish edge are where the innovators go to test new ideas – and can get away with it. Suburban Judaism, by contrast, is a little like the houses that line the cul de sacs: quiet, solid, confident, well-maintained, and with perhaps a little too much emphasis on style over substance.

And the suburbs and suburban Judaism have the same challenge – will the kids find a home there, or will they be drawn elsewhere?
So where do city and suburb meet? Take a look at Chabad, represented on the 50 by Boruch Shlomo Cunin. Chabad has figured out a model for exporting its Brooklyn-born product to every corner of the globe, and especially the suburbs and exurbs.

Innovation is great. The next challenge is taking a cue from Chabad and finding a way to franchise it.

Ron Kampeas, JTA’s D.C. bureau chief
The Forward 50 pretty much covers it when it comes to politics – I particularly like how it bookends the major donor to each party, Sheldon Adelson for Republicans and George Soros for Democrats.
There is one glaring omission, however: The 2007 congressional class that returned Democrats to power.

It’s not just the Jewish numbers are disproportionate in Congress – 13 out of 100 in the Senate and 30 out of 435 in the House – Jewish power is as well.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) is lending his considerable weight as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to bringing about Iran sanctions that could potentially cripple the Islamic Republic, even without the international cooperation the Bush administration is seeking. The legislation would make it illegal for any American individual or entity to do business with just about anyone that does substantial business with Iran’s energy sector. The threat of losing access to American markets and banks could sway even the recalcitrant Chinese and Russians. The sanctions passed overwhelmingly, 397-16, in the House in September and are under consideration in the Senate. A similar veto-proof margin there would render irrelevant the signature of President Bush, who opposes the bill.

It doesn’t stop with Lantos; four of his committee’s subcommittees are chaired by Jewish members as well: Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) chairs the Europe subcommittee; Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) chairs the Middle East subcommittee; Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) chairs the terrorism subcommittee; and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) chairs the Western Hemisphere subcommittee.

Ackerman in particular has nudged congressional support for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking toward Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state who hopes to emerge from peace talks later this month with a concrete proposal for Palestinian statehood. Ackerman’s letter this month asking for additional financial assistance for the Palestinian Authority, his rhetoric recognizing the suffering of Palestinian refugees and his impeccable pro-Israel credentials have combined to frustrate lobbyists who yearn for the days when Congress was a willing pro-Likud cudgel battering executive branch peacemaking attempts.

Even outside the committee, congressmen that might be ranked as “backbenchers” in a parliamentary system can make a difference. The effort to recognize the World War I Ottoman genocide of Armenians made a star of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and nearly precipitated a U.S.-Turkey rift. The non-binding resolution passed the Foreign Affairs committee 27-21, with the critical support of seven of its eight Jewish members. Heading it off at the pass: None other than Wexler, the sole vote against, who led the effort to bury the bill in procedure.

The moving and shaking does not stop in the Middle East.

Investigations by the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif) – the one member of Congress who made the Forward 50 list – have helped hasten the departure of some of the staunchest of Bush loyalists, including adviser Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general.

In the Senate, six of the Judiciary Committee’s 19 members are Jewish. Two of them – Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) crossed party lines this week to shepherd President Bush’s attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey (number one on the Forward list, by the way) out of committee.

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