My Favorite Stories of the Decade
(That I wrote, and some I didn't)
|Yair Rosenberg||Jan 1|
Being a journalist is a fun job, presuming you are fortunate enough to get paid for it. You get to cultivate your curiosities, investigate mysteries, and explain things that matter. You also get to pester interesting people with impertinent personal questions under the guise of professional obligation. What more could you want?
Since I fell into this line of work accidentally after college in 2012, I’ve had the chance to write about baseball, Muslims and Jews in comic books, Mormons in Jerusalem, Harvard professors in the International Bible Contest, and so much more. I’ve also had the opportunity to cover two American presidential elections, and approximately 753 Israeli elections (and counting).
Picking the “best” stories from this run is impossible; for the overprotective writer, having to choose among one’s literary progeny is much like trying to choose among one’s children. So instead, I thought I’d give you a list of stories that you might actually enjoy today, on this New Year’s vacation, no matter when they were written. In fact, I’ve excluded any editions of this newsletter, and purposely focused on older pieces many of you may not have seen. Here they are, in no particular order:
How Cory Booker’s Adopted Jewish Identity Reflects His Politics: Booker is one of the most unusual members of the American Congress, and I think this 2013 profile, written as the former Newark mayor clinched the Democratic nomination for Senate in New Jersey, still helps explain why. If you’ve ever wondered why a black Baptist regularly quotes the Torah on the campaign trail, and what it says about his worldview, this one is for you.
The Mormons on Mount Scopus: Most stories about religious conflict in the Middle East don’t end well. This one did, so much so that it has been completely forgotten. Today, Brigham Young University has an uncontroversial branch for its students on prime real estate in Jerusalem. But decades earlier, its construction brought tens of thousands to the streets in protest, caused a vote of no confidence in the Israeli government, and even inspired an anti-Mormon Jewish pop song. Find out how it all went down, and keep an eye out for the cameos of young folks like Wolf Blitzer and Senator Orrin Hatch, who played bit parts in the story.
Judaism’s Epic Food Fight: An entertaining deep dive into the practice of Latke-Hamantashen debates on college campuses, which included me asking Middle East peace negotiators whether the long-standing conflict could be resolved (the answer: no).
Confessions of a Digital Nazi Hunter: As you might guess, I did not write the headline. But I did write this 2016 New York Times op-ed about the proliferation of fake Twitter accounts run by white supremacists to impersonate minorities like Jews. Back then, most were still blissfully unaware of the many bots and other propaganda accounts being used to push misleading messages on social media. In its small way, this piece helped change that, and hold companies like Twitter to account for their lax approach to the problem.
Why The West Wing is a Terrible Guide to American Democracy: Every few years, some mainstream outlet publishes a piece about how The West Wing—one of my favorite shows—misled a generation about how politics actually works. Back in 2012, I already wrote that piece for The Atlantic, and also explained why the very dramatic choices that make The West Wing such fantastic television make it a poor representation of American government. I think it holds up.
The Top Five Most Hilarious Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories: From the Mossad stealing shoes to the secret Talmudic plot behind the international drug trade, this piece is a reminder that many anti-Semites are not just terrible people, but also unintentionally hilarious and deserving of mockery.
Rabbis You Haven’t Heard of, But Should (2014, 2015, 2016): For many years, Newsweek used to publish an annual list of the “50 most influential rabbis in America.” Typically compiled by coastal executives who were not experts in the subject matter, it was very hit-and-miss, often favoring individuals with celebrity profiles over little-known religious leaders who meant so much to so many. So back in 2014, I decided to try to do a different list, profiling the unheralded rabbis who’d never make Newsweek, but who had made a real difference. Over the years, it included the Sherlock Holmes of Jewish history, Latin America’s first female rabbi, a rabbi shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Economics, and many more.
‘Jeopardy for Jews’: Who Wants to Be the World’s Next Top Torah Scholar? Many Americans were first introduced to Harvard law professor Noah Feldman when he testified recently before the House impeachment proceedings. But few know that the Rhodes Scholar turned legal superstar was once one question away from winning the International Bible Contest—and lost it to a fellow American wunderkind who went on to become a religious dean at Yeshiva University. What made it all even better: Americans were never supposed to win the Israeli-dominated contest in the first place.
The Myth of the Israel Lobby: One of the most popular anti-Semitic conspiracies of our age is the myth that some unseen Jewish hand controls our political affairs. For some, it’s George Soros. For others, it’s the Rothschilds. And for many, it’s the “Israel lobby.” But when it comes to that allegedly all-powerful lobby, this conspiracy theory is particularly easy to debunk, as I did in this piece. In it, I show through polling data that American politicians are pro-Israel because American voters are pro-Israel, which is why the vaunted Israel lobby typically fails when it doesn’t have public opinion already on its side. What is at work, in other words, is not conspiracy but democracy.
How Kosher Came to College Campuses: You probably fell asleep just reading that headline but this piece actually begins with one of the greatest openings I’ve ever written: “The great knish controversy erupted at Harvard in the spring of 1992. It began with a toaster oven.” Come for that story, stay for the carefully guarded culinary secrets of Yale’s Skull & Bones secret society.
The Quest to Reconcile Modern Biblical Scholarship with Jewish Belief: One of the great things about working for a place like Tablet is that I can write pieces that span centuries of Jewish history and quote everyone from professors at contemporary universities to Maimonides. This is one of those pieces, and it traces how different modern Jewish denominations have attempted—or not attempted—to grapple with contemporary academic claims of human authorship of the Bible. It’s an investigation that gets to the heart of Jewish life and belief in a disenchanted era.
Trump Keeps Pushing Anti-Semitic Stereotypes, But He Thinks He’s Praising Jews: This is my unified theory of Donald Trump and anti-Semitism. The best intellectual insights explain a problem so completely that it seems blindingly obvious in hindsight. That’s not an easy thing to do, but judging by its reception, I think this Washington Post op-ed did that for many people and will continue to be relevant as long as he is president and continues to evoke anti-Semitic tropes.
Chaim Bloom’s Diamond Life: I love baseball, Jews, and journalism, so this piece was truly the trifecta. In the days before the 2019 baseball season began, I shadowed then-Tampa Bay Rays vice president Chaim Bloom and wrote an in-depth profile about his approach to baseball and how his Jewish observance and life have influenced his career. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and it became even more relevant when Bloom was hired as the Chief Baseball Officer by the Boston Red Sox after the season. Oh, and it starts with a crazy story about gefilte fish, in case you missed it.
The Complicated History of Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: One theme of my work has been the discrimination faced by religious minorities in this country, whether they be Jewish, Mormon, or Muslim. This Washington Post piece about Thomas Jefferson’s fabled Qur’an, which is often held up as a symbol of acceptance but actually has a more fraught legacy, reminds us of how far we’ve come and still have to go to truly embrace our Muslim fellow citizens.
‘Jews Will Not Replace Us’: Why White Supremacists Go After Jews: It’s hard to recall, but there was a time when many did not understand the anti-Semitic underpinnings of contemporary white nationalism. Initial reporting on Charlottesville followed this pattern, with some mainstream outlets even misreporting the neo-Nazi chant of “Jews will not replace us” as “You will not replace us.” I wrote this Washington Post op-ed to center anti-Semitism in the conversation, and explain the white genocide conspiracy theory that few then understood, but would later inspire the Pittsburgh massacre. It’s a reminder that anti-Semitism is never incidental to a story like this, it is integral—and we ignore it at our peril.
13 Inconvenient Truths About What Is Happening In Gaza: It is extraordinarily difficult to write fairly, informatively, and compassionately about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doing so is probably the hardest part of my job. I wrote this piece in an attempt to shatter the partisan narratives suffocating the subject. I honestly expected it to mostly just tick people off, because I wrongly assumed that most people subscribed to those polarized narratives. As it turns out, this was one of the most read and appreciated pieces of my entire career, and probably the only article ever recommended by both Sarah Silverman and pro-Trump phase Anthony Scaramucci. I look back at it to remind myself that the loudest and angriest voices we see on social media don’t represent where most of us are, and shouldn’t cow us into avoiding more thoughtful discussion of difficult problems.
Two pieces I did not write, but helped publish and highly recommend:
Why They Went: The Forgotten Story of the St. Augustine 17 by Mitzi Steiner recovers the little-known story of 16 American rabbis who traveled to one of the country’s racial flashpoints to protest and got arrested at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s direction.
On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi! is one of the most brilliant pieces of Jewish fiction I have ever read. A long-lost story by science fiction satirist Philip Klass, the Tablet republication includes original illustrations and the author’s own narration. This hilarious account of an imagined future Zionist Congress on Venus doubles as an essential meditation on who and what makes a Jew.
Of course, none of this would be possible or financially viable without you, my readers. So in closing, I’d like to thank you for your support this past decade. I will do my very best to reward it in the next one.