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Breaking down the Forward 50

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The Forward is out with its annual list of 50 machers and shakers, and JTA’s  lined up four Jewish pundits to give us their take.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (editor, blogger and columnist at the New Jersey Jewish News and a former managing editor of the Forward): It’s a strong list, without any glaring omissions. I thought Susie Fishbein was an inspired choice, and not just because she’s from NJ: Her books and recipes are fixtures in every observant kitchen I know, and how many other Jewish leaders insinuate themselves into the behaviors of their communities to the degree that she does?

And I’m glad Shmarya Rosenberg got his due for hammering Agriprocessors (Nathaniel Popper certainly would have made it if he weren’t at the Forward itself). Aaron Rubashkin was an unfortunate choice, however — I know the list often includes bad guys among the good, but past bad guys usually qualify as leaders of something, a movement or an idea. Rubashkin will either turn out to be a crook, a patsy, or a grotesque incompetent — it’s the folks who dogged him who deserve to be on the 50.

Where’s David Axelrod? I might have gone with him and even left out Rahm Emanuel at this point (too early). Axelrod was chief architect of Obama’ campaign, and by that measure was the single most influential Jew of the past 12 months. Not only that, he is a one-man black-Jewish coalition, having engineered victories for black mayors in Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, and Deval Patrick’s election as governor of Massachusetts. But Lieberman? He picked the wrong horse, and considering polls showing Obama actually gaining Jewish votes over Kerry, seemed to have no impact at all on his co-religionist’s vote. (He did inspire the campaign’s best joke, from Stewart. After Lieberman accompanied McCain to Israel, Stewart said, “You win Senator, but you know when you go to Israel you don’t have to bring your own Jew. There’s a wide variety of Jews there.”) And I don’t buy this “centrist” business — he pushed an unrecognizable image of the Democrats as a party of the far left, conveniently allowing himself the room to call himself a “centrist.” Real progressives gag when they hear that the Democratic mainstream is “leftist.” Lieberman is a pro-choice Republican, plain and simple.

Speaking of Jews whose influence was shown to be on the wane: Bill Kristol is notable for representing a movement in decline, and his NYT’s column was smarmy, seemingly dashed off, and simply wrong, time and time again. In terms of his Jewish influence or significance, the Jewish vote for Obama only showed how out of touch he was with the bulk of the Jewish community. I think David Brooks belongs on the list instead. He speaks more directly and intelligently to today’s Jewish dilemmas — a true centrist, it seems to me, who pegged the ways in which the Republican Party turned its back on the intelligentsia and left Jewish thinkers like Brooks without a home. Kristol is the nudnik on the shul listserv who keeps forwarding you the Muslim rumors; Brooks is the guy at Kiddush who joins you in wrestling through the day’s contradictions.

I would also have added Stuart Levey, the under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. While everyone else is staging useless rallies and writing panicked opeds, he is actually working on a strategy for containing Iran — mobilizing the private sector to sanction Tehran — that may actually work. To make room, I would have dropped Jon Stewart ( a Stuart for a Stewart) —  the whole bit about his subversive Jewish sensibility and truth-to-power blah blah blah has been beaten to death in previous “Forward 50s.”

Rebecca Honig Friedman (covers Jewish women’s issues at the Jewess blog and is Manager of Original Programming and New Media for The Jewish Channel): There are only 13 women included in the Forward 50 this year. As a Jewish women’s issues blogger it’s my duty to note that fact and to note my disappointment in it. That means only 26% of the list of America’s Most Influential Jews are women even though more than 50% of America’s Jews are women. This is particularly disappointing since it’s a step back from last year’s list, which by my count included 17 women (34%).  I will allow that the absence of women on the list may be more reflective of the balance of power in the Jewish community than of the Forward’s particular biases, but I do think, given the necessarily arbitrary nature of such lists, they could have traded a few of the men on there — Aaron Rubashkin, perhaps — for influential Jewish women. (I know the Forward is proud of its coverage of the Agriprocessors story, but does that really justify devoting 5 of 51 spots to the players in that story?)

Aside from this complaint, though, I think it’s a good list. This year’s 50 actually shows a progressive and inclusive bent, particularly in the Forward’s decision to solicit reader suggestions. Most of the noted machers are progressive thinkers and doers, people who are shaking things up and trying to move the community, or the country, in new directions. And I like that the majority of those included are being noted for their involvement in the Jewish community or Jewish affairs, not just for being influential people who happen to be Jewish.

Of the 13 powerful women who are included, it’s interesting but not surprising that four are <a href="http://jewess.canonist.com/?p=889">in the realm of religion</a>, and interesting to note that, besides those four, the majority of the women noted do not work in the professional Jewish field (not surprising given the aforementioned balance of power); rather, they wield their Jewish identity and values to influence other arenas. Also noteworthy is that four of these women are included for their involvement in politics (including Sarah Silverman, since “The Great Schlep” video is what landed her a spot.) Could this signify a Jewish woman challenger to Sarah Palin’s 2012 presidential bid?  Maybe.

Let’s just hope it’s not by Sarah Silverman.

Esther D. Kustanowitz (freelance writer and consultant based in Los Angeles who blogs at myurbankvetch.com and jdatersanonymous.com, and is a frequent contributor to Beliefnet’s Idol Chatter blog): I’ve never really felt the need for "top" lists, but that doesn’t stop me from reading them. In viewing such lists, people focus on what’s important to them, and in this election year, the lens is mostly political. I could focus on my local angle: that Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, from the shul down the block from my new apartment in Los Angeles, was on the list was intriguing. But as a social media and pop culture addict, I focus on lists through the lens of my own interests: Facebook, film and television.

First, my Facebook name-dropping, because I’m proud of my friends. Mik Moore (with help from Sarah Silverman) schlepped his way onto the list to get out the (let’s face it — Democratic and Obama-specific) vote, especially among Floridian grandparents. Ilana Trachtman’s film, "Praying with Lior," has been a labor of love for years, and she’s worked tirelessly to craft the film, fundraise on its behalf and then release it to the Jewish public. William Daroff has been really encouraging since I met him at the G.A. last year, and we have stayed in touch via Facebook since. David Borowich I met years ago and our mutual friends and interests have perpetuated frequent points of social intersection. I’ve been privileged to watch Elie Kaunfer take Kehilat Hadar to successful and inspiring next steps including Mechon Hadar and Yeshivat Hadar. And Nigel Savage is still every bit the dynamo he was when I met him long ago, through a Purim spiel sponsored by Hazon.

One of my favorite shows, "Mad Men," got a nod for Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and exec producer, lauded for getting "to the core of the American story ― and the Jewish American story ― through nuanced portraits of outsiders, loners and underdogs." One memorable episode featured a meeting between the WASPy firm and an unexpected prospective client — Israel’s Tourism industry.

Adam Sandler’s been a public Jew for years, but his inclusion this year is about "Don’t Mess With the Zohan." The film "raked in $100 million" at the US box office, but the success was not just monetary. I saw this film in a theater full of Israelis in Jerusalem; watching them bop along to the Hadag Nachash soundtrack, discuss the dialogue in Hebrew with the friends they came with, or enjoy the copious and ludicrous hummus references was an unexpected supersize of the Semitic cinema experience that fostered Israeli pop culture pride.

We seem to be in a moment where Judaism isn’t just a throwaway line about Hanukkah. In some cases, it brings up the difficulties we still feel about our insider/outsider status: a Jewish country goes to a goyishe ad agency to pitch their country as the location of "Exodus" the movie, instead of the location of the Exodus from Egypt. The Zohan illustrated through an exaggerated lens some of the cliched but true stereotypes about Israel and Israelis, and introduced Israeli music to new audiences. And in other films, notably Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (not named to the Forward 50, but certainly on my recommended movies list), Jewish identity is presented as part of a larger identity, but an indispensible part thereof. Now that the election’s behind us, I’m looking forward to finding more meaningful Jewish moments in popular culture, and to seeing what my Facebook friends come up with next.

Ami Eden (as in me, JTA’s editor in chief, and former executive editor of the Forward): One advantage in organizing this disussion is that I not only get to respond to the list, I also get to respond to the responders. So… let’s start off by agreeing with Andy that David Axelrod is a noticeable omission — especially when placing Rahm Emanuel in the Top 5. To be fair, of course, it’s equally if not more ridiculous that JTA managed to go the entire campaign without producing a profile on Axelrod, but churned out a piece on Emanuel right away when he was tapped as White House chief of staff. What makes Emanuel an obvious Jewish story and Axelrod not? We in the Jewish media have an easy time latching on to something Israel-related (Emanuel volunteered in Israel during the first Iraq war and has an Israeli father). Religious Jews are also easy: You can be sure that if Axelrod wore a yarmulke, the Jewish media would have been all over him, even if he hadn’t of done one thing differently. Where we have trouble is with Jews who identify as such, but don’t wear it on their sleaves, where the influence of their background and upbrining is more nuanced and less obvious. Oh, I don’t know, maybe 70 percent of American Jews. That’s all.

Now let’s turn things around on Andy: If we’re going to debate which New York Times columnist is more representative of Amercan Jews, the question isn’t Kristol or Brooks — it’s Frank Rich or Paul Krugman (no question, in my mind, it’s the former). But ultimately I think Leon Wieseltier belongs on the list every year. Other writers unerstand and reflect the rumblings in the Jewish kishkes, he turns this churning into prose — and always seems to stake out that narrow middle ground between Jewish paranoia and Jewish passivity. Read his columns during the election campaign — never wavering in his healthy skepticism regarding "The One" from Illinois but ultimately finding the Maverick from Alaska to be much more alarming — if you want to understand why Obama went from 60% in polls of Jewish voters through much of the spring and summer to 78 percent on Election Day.

A few more Obama-related oversights: Daniel Shaprio orchestrated the president-elect’s impressive Jewish ground game in the fall and was by Obama’s side in every meeting during his trip to Israel; Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s man in D.C. and a law-school buddy of Obama, is well positioned to be one of the White House’s main go-to guys in the Jewish community, assuming he doesn’t end up in the administration himself (how’s that for starting rumors!). But the biggest omission, I’d say, is not including someone associated with the viral e-mail campaigns that plagued Obama for months, and undoubtedly hurt him in several key states during the primaries. Long before the Republican Jewish Coalition ramped up its anti-Obama advertising, Ed Lasky’s takedowns in the American Thinker were making the e-mail rounds. And while we’re discussing the Obama wars, Mik Moore is a smart pick, but why not a dual entry with Ari Wallach, who was his partner in Obama boosting?

Not enough women? Well, I can think of at least one obvious choice missing from the list: Reva Price, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s point person on Jewish affairs. Too many Agriprocessors picks? Hey, they’re entitled.

OK, enough nitpicking on my part. As usual, if you want a creative and original take on the Jewish year that was, and a guide to what comes next, read through the entire Forward 50.

And, of course, if you think we’re wrong or right, or you have a different take… that’s what the comments section is for.

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