At one table, Sigmund Livingston, founder of the Anti-Defamation League, is strategizing with Elie Wiesel and the civil rights martyrs Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner about how to combat rising hate. At another, Jackie Mason is yucking it up with Jerry Seinfeld.
Fanny Brice, the original Funny Girl, is sitting next to Barbra Streisand, who played her on the silver screen. (I.B. Singer interrupts them to compliment Babs on Yentl, which was based on one of his stories.) The billionaire megadonors Sheldon Adelson and George Soros are arguing politics with their philanthropic forebear Jacob Schiff. Calvin Klein is reviewing the guests’ fashion choices with Jacob William Davis, a Latvian tailor credited with inventing modern jeans, while Joan Nathan compares notes on the catering with Hinde Amchanitzky, publisher of the first Yiddish cookbook in the United States.
Itzhak Perlman is playing violin in a corner, as Ed Koch struts table to table, bellowing “How’m I doin?”
Welcome to my imaginary Shabbat dinner celebrating the Forward’s 125th anniversary, and meet the Forward 125: American Jews who made headlines and history each year since our founding.
Some of the 125 most influential Jews, from 1897-2022. Graphic by Matthew Litman via Getty Images/Forward archives/Library of Congress/Wikimedia/IMDB/Kali Films/iStock/Universal Pictures/Random House/YIVO/the Center for Jewish History
‘Tis the season of lists. A bearded guy in a red suit has the naughty and nice ones, while publications put out endless editions of notable or notorious thises and thats. For a quarter century, the Forward 50 listed each year’s most influential American Jews. Last year, we slimmed it to seven “who fascinated us.” This year, our 125th of continuous publication, called for something special.
So I tapped the hive mind of the Forward newsroom to populate a timeline from 1897 to 2022 with nominees who helped shape our society, and ourselves. Then I asked Beth Harpaz, our senior copy editor and a woman whose meticulous fact-checking is only outmatched by her abundant and joyful curiosity, to curate the list and create descriptions for each entry. We enlisted Matthew Litman, our editorial fellow and a visual savant, to illustrate the project, which we published a few hours ago.
It’s a long read, but well worth it — a mix of the familiar and the find, a teaching tool and a nostalgia trip, a reminder of how far we’ve come and of the cracks that remain in our broken world.
It was looking at Matt’s incredible collage, above, that got me thinking about this Shabbat dinner I’m hosting in my head tonight. How proud would I be to show Ab Cahan, our visionary founding editor, the scoop we published this week about Congressman-elect George Santos fabricating a family Holocaust history along with everything else in his bio? How amazing to interview Leo Frank or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Imagine the anniversary tribute parody song George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim could come up with! And I just have to talk to Marlee Matlin about how nobody knew Kenny’s last name on The West Wing (those who know, know).
My father taught me that whenever a rabbi is present, they should get the kavod, or honor, of making kiddush. I’ll call ours up as a group — it will be interesting to see how Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitch movement, handles praying alongside Sally Priesand, Angela Buchdahl and Alysa Stanton, the first woman, first Korean-American and first Black woman ordained in the United States. For hamotzi, perhaps frozen-bagel maven Harry Lender and the founder of Hebrew National hot dogs, Theodore Krainin.
Take a look at our list. Check it twice. Then tell us if you found it naughty or nice. Better yet, share your thoughts on who we overlooked, and why they should have been included. We’ll likely publish a selection of reader nominees and other feedback.
I’m a fan of mixed tables — in our sukkah, I always tell people not to sit next to the person they came with, and at our wedding, family and friends were split up for max mingling. So I’ll have Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Elana Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg each captain their own table. But I think it’d be fun to pair the basketball legend Sue Bird and the gold-medal gymnast Aly Raisman. And I’ll be interested to see who the journalists Daniel Pearl and Jodi Kantor sidle up to, not to mention Joseph Pulitzer.
I’m a little concerned that if the food is cold or the room too hot there could be an uprising, given the ranks of rabble-rousers including Sarah Edelson, the leader of the kosher meat riots in 1902, to Larry Kramer of ACT UP. What I’m not at all worried about is entertainment; I’m thinking duets with Bob Dylan and Debbie Friedman, Sammy Davis Jr. and Daveed Diggs, Leonard Cohen and Matisyahu. And consider the comedy mashup of the Marx Brothers + Lenny Bruce!
This is literally not even the half of it. Every time I re-scan the list, I pick a different person I’d most like to have a drink with, a new question I’d ask someone. I marvel at the millions of stories their collective lives contained and touched. And I’m awed and humbled that the Forward has been telling them for all these years.
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