2019 was the year that was. (Gabriel Greschler)
2019 was the year that was. (Gabriel Greschler)

Our 10 most read stories of 2019: genetics, TV, ‘Barbie Death Camp’ and more

It was quite a year for the Jews of the Bay Area. From TV shows to “Barbie Death Camp” to white supremacists to racial diversity in the Jewish community, here are the 10 stories our online readers clicked on the most in 2019.

1. Hit Israeli TV show ‘Shtisel’ pushes haredi community boundaries

It was a big year for Israeli TV in America. One show in particular, “Shtisel,” became an unlikely crossover hit among American viewers when the 2013-2016 series about the travails of a haredi family in Jerusalem hit Netflix late last year. As our TV reviewer Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote in January, there are some universal themes about family, community and change that kept mainstream audiences fascinated by the show.

2. ‘Auschwitz-themed’ Barbie Death Camp at Burning Man catches ADL’s eye

The macabre scene at the Barbie Death Camp at this year's Burning Man
The macabre scene at the Barbie Death Camp at this year’s Burning Man

In September, we brought you perhaps the strangest piece of news we covered this year: the curious case of Burning Man’s “Barbie Death Camp” display. Here’s how reporter Gabe Stutman described it: “A sea of nude Barbies is seen moving toward three full-size kitchen ovens. Some are ‘crucified’ on bright pink crosses. Other photos show toy soldiers with semi-automatic rifles ‘marching’ the Barbies from the rear. A banner strapped to an RV proclaims the Barbie Death Camp ‘the friendliest concentration camp’ at Burning Man. Another reads ‘arbeit macht plastik frei,’ a reference to the message over the Auschwitz gate meaning ‘work makes you free.’”

3. A journey into the Holy of Holies — in a Latter-day Saints temple

The baptismal font at the Oakland Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Photo/Courtesy Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
The baptismal font at the Oakland Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Photo/Courtesy Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Some might say it’s the least Jewish story we wrote this year, but I beg to differ. My visit to the recently remodeled Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Temple in Oakland was a personal highlight of the year. It was the first time it had been open to the public in over 50 years, and the visit did not disappoint. As I wrote at the time: “I was there out of my love of religious architecture — and because I’d heard that [Mormon temples] include architectural references to the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites as they wandered in the desert), as well as the ancient Temples that stood on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.”

4. The ongoing saga of Ross Farca, East Bay Jew hater

No one article about him truly topped the list, but we’ve been covering the story since the 24-year-old Concord man was arrested in June and accused of plotting online to shoot Jews. Police found a weapons cache and Nazi literature in his home. He has been in and out of court and jail since then. Last month, a federal charge was added: In 2017, he falsified an application to join the Army by lying about his mental health history, according to the FBI. His bail has been revoked and he remains in custody as his case progresses.

5. Craigslist founder giving away fortune with Jewish values as his moral compass

a middle-aged man with a goatee and glasses sets at a laptop, his face illuminated by its screen
Craig Newmark is the billionaire founder of Craigslist, an avowed nerd with a passion for Judaism and journalism. (Photo/Norm Levin)

This profile of iconoclastic billionaire Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, was the first in-depth interview he has given about his Jewish upbringing and values. “More and more I’m conscious of the notion of treating people like I want to be treated, and more and more I’m conscious of the notion that I got lucky financially and I should share that in ways that mean something,” he told our late colleague Rob Gloster in April.

6. Many Jews are white. Some are not. Get used to it.

The 2018 Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities revealed that one-quarter of local Jewish households include at least one person of color. In our Jan. 25 editorial, we wrote: “It’s time we acknowledge not only the tendency to make Jews the ‘other’ in broader society, but the equally pernicious tendency to ‘other’ Jews of color right here within our own community. Our cover story is replete with stories from Jews of color being stared at or questioned when they show up in synagogue, and being passed over for leadership positions.” But we also highlighted ways in which the situation is changing for the better.

7. South Bay man, former Israeli commando, helped smuggle Ethiopian Jews to Israel

Nir Merry during his time with the Israeli navy
Nir Merry during his time with the Israeli navy

Remember this year’s middling Netflix film “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” based on the secret Israeli plan to extract Ethiopian Jews through Sudan in the early ’80s? Yeah, there’s no reason you should. Much more interesting is the real-life story of one of the Israeli naval commandos who took part in the operation. Nir Merry lives in Mountain View today, and as he told editorial assistant Gabriel Greschler, during the operation he “spent nights picking up Ethiopian Jews who had hiked for days, sometimes weeks, to reach the rendezvous point. He recalled avoiding armed Sudanese patrols on the coastline and ferrying the refugees to a disguised Israeli Navy ship in the Red Sea. ‘We were tired but really excited,’ Merry said. ‘I remember picking [up] an [Ethiopian] lady and you could hear little squeaks. And I realized it was a baby tucked in her dress close to her body.’”

8. A Sephardic girl with a bubbe? Disney blew it with their first Jewish princess.

Just last week, Adam Eilath, head of school at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, registered his dismay at the Hanukkah-themed episode of the Disney series “Elena of Avalor.” In his opinion piece he wrote, “As a Sephardic Jew raising two small daughters in an American Jewish community whose default is almost always Ashkenazi…. I was excited that the episode would feature Princess Rebekah from a Latino (Ladino) Jewish kingdom.” But, he continued, “As usual, the only way that Sephardic culture gets represented in this episode… is by incorporating Sephardic food.”

9. Who is a Jew? DNA home testing adds new wrinkle to age-old debate

Kimberly Schroder shows off her 23andMe results. (Gabriel Greschler)
Kimberly Schroder shows off her 23andMe results. (Gabriel Greschler)

This story was part of a three-part series on the rise of home genetic testing and the ease of doing genealogical research from the comfort of your home computer. One woman we spoke with grew up Catholic, but found out that she was 50% Asheknazi Jewish from a 23andMe home genetic test. But, as reporter Maya Mirsky asks, what does that really mean? “The question itself is a new wrinkle in the age-old debate of just what it means to be Jewish, which has been given a kick in the pants from the commercialization of a field of science that says it can tell you something new: For a price, you can now choose from one of seven commercial genetic tests to find out just how Jewish you are.”

10. Nazi flag seen hanging in state building in Sacramento

In October we reported on a Nazi flag seen hanging inside a state parole office in Sacramento. How did it get there? And why was it hanging in a government building? The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told us in an email that they have a “zero tolerance policy for the display of objects that are derogatory in nature,” but they pointed out that their officers deal with “gang members and high-risk sex offenders, [so] we will come into contact with items that may be considered objectionable. However,” the email continued, “We take this issue seriously and have removed the item and are looking into the circumstances for why the flag was displayed in potential view of the public.” No word yet on what they found out.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].