Looking back at 5764 &mdash the good, the bad and the kosher

The Jewish year 5764, now coming to an end, was, as Jewish years have gone the last few Jewish years, not a bad Jewish year.

We’ve had worse. Like the last four or so, during which more Israelis were killed than in two of Israel’s wars, in which more Israeli civilians died than in any other four-year period in Israel’s history.

5764 was a year in which there still was terrorism in Israel, far too much terrorism, in which innocent Jews still were murdered, far too many Jews, but the number of incidents was down significantly, the number of dead far fewer.

Making 5764 not a bad Jewish year, all things considered.

Indeed, considering all the things that took place in the Jewish year now coming to a close, 5764 actually was, in many ways, a very good year.

It was a year, after all, that began with the announcement that Campbell’s vegetarian vegetable soup was now kosher, and concluded with the joyous news that Israel had won its first Olympic gold medal ever.

For windsurfing, no less. Jews and windsurfing. Who knew?

In between those two events was a whole lot of other good news. But the bad news about much of the good news of 5764 is that it came from outside the Jewish world, while much of the bad news of 5764 came from within it.

Consider the following good news, all of which took place in 5764 and which came from places we aren’t used to seeing as producers of good Jewish news:

n The United Nations not only held its first conference ever on anti-Semitism, but it put a lot of pressure on Tajikistan to preserve the only synagogue in that nation’s capital. The Tajiks want to demolish the shul to put up a presidential palace, but the United Nations, of all groups, is urging them not to.

n Serbian soldiers began cleaning up a historic Jewish cemetery. After decades of abusing the graveyard, which dates back hundreds of years, the Serbian government has pledged to clean it up using its army’s soldiers and then to extensively repair it. Serbia, one of the most anti-Semitic countries during the Holocaust.

n An Egyptian Cabinet minister blasted those who deny the Holocaust. Writing in The Islamic Banner newspaper, Mamdouh El-Beltagui sharply criticized the paper for saying the “Zionists used lies to justify the creation of Israel.” The paper’s editor was forced to resign. Egypt, leader of the Arab world.

Amazingly, I could go on and on and on, citing amazing example after amazing example of the world, including the most unexpected places, working to help Jews, working to fight anti-Semitism.

Indeed, the sad news of 5764 is how much the Jewish world failed to see all the good news out there. How much it exaggerated the bad news, indeed, almost rushed to believe the bad news.

Take France. It is conventional Jewish wisdom that France is a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Problem is that ignores the fact that every major French politician, the president of France, the mayor of Paris, and on and on, has strongly and publicly condemned anti-Semitism and put a lot of money into fighting it.

How much Jews pathetically want to believe the worst can be seen in the most recent and highest-profile cases of what appeared to be French anti-Semitism. Events that had world Jews screaming gevalt. Events that turned out to be, in the first case, a hoax, and in the second, the work of a Jew.

The first incident involved a woman who claimed she had been the victim of a violent anti-Semitic attack. She told police that six men who thought she was Jewish, used knives to cut her hair and rip her clothing and then scrawled three swastikas on her stomach with a black marker pen.

French president Jacques Chirac was outraged, called it “a horror.” French Jews and American Jews and all Jews said, see, see the anti-Semitism gripping the world. See.

Only problem is that the next day, the woman admitted she made the whole thing up. So much for anti-Semitism running wild.

The second incident involved the burning down of a Jewish social center located in a former synagogue in Paris. The soup kitchen, serving poor Jews, was set alight and covered with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans. It was completely destroyed in the attack.

Well, needless to say, French Jews and American Jews and all Jews saw the ugly face of anti-Semitism, even hints of a second Holocaust. So bad was it that Israel’s foreign minister immediately flew to France for urgent consultations.

Only one problem. The guy who did it was a Jew.

Seems he had worked at the soup kitchen, was disgruntled, unstable, and so he did what he did. Making this the work not of an anti-Semite, but a Jew. As much as we so like to jump to anti-Semitic conclusions.

For now, let’s take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the Jewish year about to depart.

5764 was a year in which it seemed that to run for president, a candidate had to have some connection to Judaism. Seeking the Democratic nomination were Orthodox Jew Sen. Joseph Lieberman; Gen. Wesley Clark, whose father was Jewish; and Gov. Howard Dean, whose wife is Jewish and who is raising his children as Jews. Winning the nomination was Sen. John Kerry, whose grandparents were Jewish and whose brother converted to Judaism 20 years ago.

What a country.

It was a year in which reality TV shown spotlights on Jews. There was Sam on “The Apprentice,” Howard Hersh on “The Bachelorette,” and Adam Mesh on “Average Joe: Adam Returns.”

5764 was a year in which Anne Frank would have turned 75. In which we marked the 10th anniversary of the death of the Lubavitcher rebbe, the 100th anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

5764 was a year in which we remembered the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the bar mitzvah anniversary of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, the 40th anniversary of the Save Soviet Jewry movement.

Reminds us of how much of all that we seem to be losing, reminds us of how, in a time of such unprecedented good news all around us, we are, instead, generating so much bad news from inside us.

Jews plotting to kill the prime minister of Israel, egged on by some of the country’s leading rabbis giving it the same halachic seal of approval that led to three bullets in the back of the sainted Yitzhak Rabin, seems to qualify as an example.

As does the fact that in 5764, one of Reform Judaism’s leading rabbis, Paul Menitoff, predicted the death of Conservative Judaism. As does the fact that one study showed that the vast majority of really wealthy Jews give the vast majority of their money to non-Jewish causes. As does another study showing that the American Jewish population is numerically stagnant, aging and increasingly less observant of tradition.

While we got much less to worry about from the outside, we got some serious things that need serious fixing on the inside.

We have it better than any era of Jews who ever lived anywhere. It is our challenge to live that, to live up to that.

5765 is a good time to start.

Joseph Aaron is editor and publisher of the Chicago Jewish News.