The Year Everything Changed

By | Jun 23, 2020

The Year Everything Changed

Thirty thinkers tell us which years altered the course of Jewish history.


In the midst of today’s cataclysmic events, it is hard not to view 2020 as a year that will change the course of human history. And while it may, there have been many other years that felt—and were—equally significant. Moment looks back at them and how they altered the world for Jews and non-Jews alike. For this endeavor, we’ve enlisted the help of a distinguished group of thinkers who study the past or contemplate the future. Each contribution tells its own story, and together they compose a bigger one that we hope will expand your thinking.


To view the symposium in timeline format,
click here. 


Above: The first chapter of Genesis (Bereshit in Hebrew) written on an egg. Courtesy of the Israel Museum

3761 BCE


The first words of Genesis are: “In the beginning.” But when was the beginning? Genesis doesn’t mention the year of creation, but for millennia, calculating it was a matter of great importance to religious and other scholars. One of the earliest was Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, a student of the famed Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the Galilee in the 2nd century BCE. After many years of study, he determined the year of creation was 3761 BCE, based on references to time in the Torah, including the life spans of biblical figures. The significance of his work was not immediately recognized: The year 3761 BCE became widely accepted only when Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi, philosopher and scientist, expanded upon it in his writings.

Many Jewish scholars after ben Halafta tried their hand at computing the year of creation, and the results varied little, usually within a few hundred years, depending on different interpretations of biblical life spans. This work might not have had repercussions beyond the Jewish world if not for another religion to which the biblical date of creation mattered greatly: Christianity. Early Christian scholars made their own calculations, but unlike Jews, who largely based their timeline on the Hebrew Masoretic text, they based theirs on the Greek translation of the Five Books of Moses, known as the Septuagint. The numerical discrepancies in the Book of Genesis between these two texts are significant. So instead of 3761 BCE, Christians dated creation to 5500 BCE, later settling on 4004 BCE.

So why should we care about any of this in the Jewish year of 5780 and the year 2020 CE in the Gregorian calendar? (That calendar is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582, and like all Christian calendars counts forward from the birth of Jesus, although it is customary today to use the terms BCE (Before the Common Era)  and CE (Common Era) in place of BC (Before Christ) and AD—Anno Domini, Latin for “in the year of the lord.”)  Most Jews haven’t heard of 3761 BCE, let alone take it as the literal beginning of the universe. We’re largely willing to side with science on these matters. And modern dating measurement techniques (first put forward by a geologist named James Hutton in the 1700s) tell us the Earth formed billions of years ago and that the Bronze Age was beginning in the 4th millenium. But the year of biblical creation continues to matter to those inclined to take the Bible literally. While some ultra-Orthodox Jews reject evolution, many try to bridge Torah and science, finding, for example, similarities between the Torah’s description of creation and the Big Bang, and suggesting that the term “day” in Genesis (at least before the creation of the sun and moon on the fourth day) may refer to millions of years rather than 24 hours. There’s plenty of rabbinical discussion on this matter, but historically this debate has raged more fiercely in the Christian world. While the vast majority of modern-day Christians in the United States reject literal biblical interpretations, a vocal minority of fundamentalists hold fast to the belief that creation occurred 6,000 or so years ago.This influences how they view the world, helping to fuel contemporary debates  about religious freedom, education and censorship, and stoking the polarization at the heart of our era’s culture wars. 

Nadine Epstein is the editor-in-chief of Moment.


1177 BCE


The time period around 1177 BCE was a monumental era in the history of Judaism—one that most people don’t consider. During that era, virtually all the Bronze Age empires in the Mediterranean and Near East collapsed: the Babylonians, Assyrians and others—almost every kingdom between modern-day Italy and Afghanistan. Egyptian records blame the “Sea Peoples”—the best known of whom were the Philistines—who invaded on ships. There were other calamities as well; the century was marked by plagues, famine and drought. It was one of those dayenu moments. Among those affected were the city-states and the small kingdoms of Canaan. And into that vacuum stepped the Israelites. Just 30 years earlier, in 1207 BCE, Pharaoh Merneptah had mentioned Israel as a people—not a place—in an inscription that is the first time the name appears outside the Bible.It was only then (possibly after the Exodus from Egypt) that the Israelites were eventually able to establish the Kingdom of David and Solomon, which split into Israel and Judah. Israel, the northern kingdom, lasted until 720 BCE, when it was conquered by the Neo-Assyrians. And Judah existed until 586 BCE, when the Neo-Babylonians sent its people into exile and slavery. But none of this would have happened had the Bronze Age kingdoms not collapsed. The two Israelite kingdoms lasted only for a few hundred years, but it was long enough for the Israelites to establish a national identity and a connection to a particular geographic area.

Eric H. Cline is a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University and author of 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed.


586 BCE


The year that permanently inflected the history of the Jews and Judaism was 586 BCE, when the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed and the First Temple was burned. Some Jews stayed in the land. Most were sent to Babylonia or fled to Egypt. (The Babylonian exile had actually begun 11 years earlier, when the Babylonians deported King Jehoiakim and many of the Judahite/Judean elite to Babylonia.) This is the origin of diaspora Judaism. It is the beginning of the articulation of a kind of Jewishness that can be practiced even without the sacrificial cult. Even though the Temple is restored and remains a major symbol and pilgrimage site for hundreds of years, from that point on a permanent community of Jews will live in diaspora. In the long duration of Jewish history this has far-reaching implications.

The redaction, the integration, of the Five Books of Moses—the Torah—into a common book is a direct response to this exile. Although parts of the text had an earlier origin, the process of redaction began, according to some scholars, in Babylonia itself among the Judahites, who no longer had access to the Temple in Jerusalem. They needed a new locus of Jewish spirituality. So they turned to the written text. When in 539 BCE, Ezra the scribe and priest led a return to the now Persian province of Judea, they read the Sefer Torat Moshe. Even though there was a return and the Temple was rebuilt, the exile did not entirely end. Most Jews opted to stay where they were. But they didn’t disappear from history the way the ten tribes of Israel of the north did when they were driven out of their land by the Assyrians in 720 BCE. They survived in Babylonia and Egypt by redefining themselves. It is in their exile that the Torah becomes central to Judaism and Jewish identity.

Prior to the exile, the Israelite religion was the state religion of the Judahites. Their primary identity was political and territorial. Post-exile, the idea of the Jews as a people remained. But what unified them was no longer territory or national boundaries per se, but rather a common ethnoreligious identity that traced itself to a particular homeland. Even though it is estimated that by 2050 a majority of Jews will live in the State of Israel, I do not expect the diaspora to go away. This duality will remain. 

Daniel B. Schwartz is associate professor of history and director of the Judaic studies program at George Washington University and author of Ghetto: The History of a Word.


“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem,” by Francesco Hayez (1867).
“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem,” by Francesco Hayez (1867). (Wikimedia Commons)

70 CE


I always say that 70 CE is when Judaism becomes a virtual-reality system. Religion at that time was all about the sacrificial cult. There were the laws of the Torah, but many of these laws were centered around the Temple priesthood. The main way of gaining divine favor was to kill some sheep. And what’s amazing about that is—now with Judaism an intellectual tradition—there was nothing intellectual then about making sacrifices. It was very visceral and physical and bloody, and required being in one place at one time, chosen by God. It wasn’t that “this blood represents X.” No, you’re killing a goat, then being absolved of your sins by the priests. It was like the childhood of a people. Childhood involves immediacy of experience and connection and encounter, not mediated by any kind of abstraction or intellectual thought.

When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people and Judaism should have died too. There’s a story in the Talmud about the sage Yochanan ben Zakkai. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, there is a Jewish revolt, and ben Zakkai sees that this revolt is going to fail. He is trying to find a way to salvage something, so he fakes his own death by having himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin and brought to the headquarters of the Roman general Vespasian. There, he pops out of the coffin and says, “Long live the Emperor.” And Vespasian says, “I should have you executed for disrespecting me because I am not the Emperor.” Two minutes later, a messenger walks in and says to the general, “We have an urgent message from Rome. Nero has died and you are being called back to Rome to become the new Emperor.” Vespasian looks at ben Zakkai and says, “What can I do for you?”

There were so many things ben Zakkai could have requested. The rabbis wonder why he didn’t ask to save the Temple. He says it’s because he knew that wouldn’t happen. Instead, he asks to create an academy for Torah scholars. Vespasian replies, “Sure, no problem.” The general then goes to Rome to become the new Emperor, and his son Titus crushes the Jewish revolt. Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple is destroyed and the Jewish people live in exile for 2,000 years. That should have been the end of everything. The only reason it wasn’t is because ben Zakkai and Judaism both fake their own deaths to survive this cataclysm. Ben Zakkai creates this virtual-reality system, where Temple rituals are transmuted—transformed into virtual versions of themselves.

Today, our prayers reflect the sacrifices in the Temple. Mincha, for instance, doesn’t mean “afternoon prayer.” It means “grain offering.” In the Avoda service on Yom Kippur, we read the Torah portion about putting the sins of the people onto the head of a goat. All these things we do today are an adult, intellectual version of this childhood memory.

Dara Horn is a novelist who teaches Jewish and Yiddish literature. Her latest book is Eternal Life.


70 CE


The year when Jewish history stopped and began again in a totally different way was the year 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem and sent the people of Israel into exile. This was a before-and-after moment. Everything that we are as Jews today is an echo of this event.

There was a first destruction hundreds of years earlier, which also was a terrible shock, but then some of the Jews returned to the land of Israel and the Second Temple was built, and again there was a sense of a Jewish center in Israel, a groundedness, a connection of heaven and earth, a chosenness. The Second Temple started as a very modest structure but grew with the generations until King Herod built a magnificent building that was a jewel of the human race.

When the Temple was destroyed, the whole nature of Jewish identity collapsed with it. We moved from sacrifice to words as a means of worship and instead of feeling like the beautiful, chosen, beloved children, we became the unwanted, unloved, loathsome strangers—people who were not part of anything. Our whole self-image changed from beautiful and chosen to ugly and perverse. If you think about all of Jewish humor and Jewish folklore, it’s all about that, all about this feeling that we’re not wanted. This was a big, big switch in our identity.

This event had a deep psychological effect on the Jewish people as a collective and reshaped us as a very different nation. And, as immense trauma does, it froze us in time at a point that put us outside of history. And while we were kind of pickled in sorrow and pain, nations that were happy and grounded and had a normal course of history have long gone. They evolved into totally different nations, cultures, religions. But we somehow froze in time because of that trauma. And the fact that we became an abnormal nation, a nation without a territory, a nation without a single language, is probably also the reason we’re still alive and active and have had so much influence on the world. Having more influence, but also living in a constant tragedy. I like to refer to the entire Jewish existence and culture, with all its grandeur, as scar tissue. Scar tissue that was formed on this great wound we suffered.

Ruby Namdar is an Israeli novelist living in New York City who teaches Jewish literature. His latest book is  The Ruined House: A Novel.


70 CE


Sometime between 66 and 70 BCE, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai reinvented Judaism. He is identified with the decision, but I think it was made from multiple points of view, as the Jewish people debated how to respond to Roman hegemony. This very difficult decision led Rabbi Yochanan to forego, essentially, the idea that the identity of the Jewish people would be tied to the Temple. He caused, or some would say just foresaw, a new definition of the Jewish people without animal sacrifices or the Temple in Jerusalem.           

I picked this date because it has relevance to potentially divisive discussions and decisions to be made today in the Jewish world—questions of militancy and of accommodation with reality. Back then—almost at the last moment when the Jewish people had initiative—a large camp within Judea saw accommodating with the Romans as the right way to go. They wanted to stay and pay the price. We see something like that today. I recently read a political discussion among Reform rabbis in North America asking what Judaism would look like today if there were no Jewish state. When I read that, I thought about Rabbi Yochanan. The story is told that on his deathbed, he wept bitterly and when asked why, he said he realized the gravity of his decision, and he was never really sure he hadn’t made a horrible mistake, and therefore was not at rest, even though he probably saved the identity of the Jewish people. Why do I say that? Because being able to admit to uncertainty and revisit highly weighty decisions is also something we need to be able to do today. The Jewish people need to learn that. I feel we are again at a critical time, for the Jewish people in Israel and worldwide.

Karl Skorecki, a nephrologist who also studies population genetics, is dean of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine at Bar-Ilan University.


70 CE


What is a decisive moment, anyway? History seldom nails radical alterations to a single year. All the same, three dates—all of them obvious—changed the fate of the Jewish people. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE ended not just the Jewish polity but Judaism as a ritual sacrifice cult. The removal of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s academy to Yavneh meant that Judaism would become a rabbinically prescribed religion with Sadducees and Essenes marginalized. It would take longer for the Hebrew Bible canon to be closed, but the seeds were sown for the creation of the Mishnah and then the broader Talmud, encoding the status of an oral law beside the written text. Thus the infinite creativity and staying power of Judaism were born out of political calamity.

The atrocious brutality of November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht—was not the founding moment of Nazism as a program of annihilation of Jewish life, nor its most hideous consummation, but it tested the compliance and collaboration of ordinary Germans and Austrians in the brutal dehumanization that would culminate in the Shoah. Those who stood by as depraved atrocities were inflicted on Jews were rehearsing the bystanding of all those who witnessed or participated in the Aktionen (actions) and mass murders of the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads). It was the moment when killing Jews could produce a shrug or a smile.

But then ten years later came May 14,1948 and the creation, under conditions of extreme peril, of the State of Israel. There could be other contenders for this moment of revival and redemption—the first Zionist Congress, the Balfour Declaration, the United Nations vote in November 1947. But there is still something supremely dramatic about David Ben-Gurion’s declaration at the Tel Aviv Museum, not least because of the profound moral dignity of the commitment to “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and the guarantee of “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University and author of The Story of the Jews.


70 CE


Any war is a traumatic event—a time of upheaval, death and suffering, and all of the losses that come with a war. So, in a historical context, 70 CE was a transformative year because of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. But it’s also a date that increased in significance at later historical moments as well.

As you move later in history, 70 CE became more and more important. Part of that story is that 70 CE, along with the ninth of Av (the Hebrew date of the destruction of the Second Temple), is a conflated date. It gets conflated with the destruction of the First Temple; it’s also enshrined in the calendar. Then other later traumatic events get lumped into the ninth of Av. And so we have this year, and then a date associated with it, that stands in for all Jewish destruction and suffering.

But if I were to tell my colleagues that I had chosen 70 CE, I think that I would get some pushback. Not all scholars agree that the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a watershed event. Some argue that the Temple and Jerusalem weren’t that significant and that their absence wasn’t seen as the greatest of losses. But regardless of what we think about how Jews immediately thought about the destruction, what we see is that later sources came to regard 70 CE as a turning point. One example is in Lamentations Rabbah, a 5th-century rabbinic text entirely devoted to the book of Lamentations. It contains the rawest stories about the destruction. It’s a text with deep anguish in it. When I read that Midrash, the question I asked myself was why in the 5th century, in particular, did the rabbis return to such deep mourning of the temple? We don’t have that in earlier rabbinic sources from the 2nd, the 3rd or the 4th century. We don’t have that reckoning. So what was it about the 5th century that caused the rabbis living in the Galilee to open up those rawest of ruins?

I think that the answer lies in the rabbis’s own historical circumstances. In the 5th century the Galilee and Jerusalem were rapidly Christianizing. It was becoming a Christian Roman Empire. It’s in the 4th century that Constantine builds the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and over the course of the hundred years that follow, Christian churches and convents and monasteries and libraries start being built throughout the region. Sunday becomes a holy day in the empire, and the theology of supersessionism and the idea that the destruction of the Temple and of Israel was replaced by the new Israel, meaning the Christian community, emerge. What the rabbis are doing is turning to a text that’s written in the aftermath of the first disruption in 586 BCE, the book of Lamentations, and they’re using it to write a commentary about the disruption of 70 CE by the Romans in order to deal with and cope with what they saw as another series of destructions of their cities and their identities in their own time period, while they are grappling with a Christianizing context.

And then all kinds of catastrophes become associated with the destruction. The book of Lamentations is dealing with those, and the ninth of Av becomes the date on which other Jewish tragedies and catastrophes are also marked, including the Spanish Inquisition, and the ninth of Av becomes another day to mourn for the Holocaust.

Additionally, we often think about the destruction of the Temple as a spatial trauma—the loss of a cultic site of worship, a place of pilgrimage, a capital city. But what our sources also tell us is that it was a temporal trauma, which is actually quite similar to other moments of social, political, economic and cultural upheavals that cause individuals and communities to question our sense of time—the rhythm of daily life, the organization of time, how we think about history.

One of the most famous examples is the French Revolution. One of the first things that happened after the French Revolution was that there was a new chronology proposed; they dispensed with the week and they started a decade, a 10-day cycle. We also see it with the industrial revolution and the railroads and this idea that there needed to be some sort of standardized time to coordinate between everything that was going on and people moving through vast distances. We even see it with the digital revolution, which is something we can all relate to: this idea of the acceleration of time, work being something you do all the time, always being accessible, and that communication goes much quicker. And now, more so than ever in the global pandemic, one of the dominant discourses about the coronavirus is how no one knows what time it is, what day it is, what month it is. Moments like those cause us to ask fundamental questions about what time means. How does time work? How should we use our time?

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is a professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Her first book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, is being released by Princeton University Press in November. 


“Kabbalah Cosmos” manuscript art by Jehan Thenaud (15th century). (Biliotheque Nationale de France)



On or about the 18th day of Iyar, in the year 3920 in the Jewish calendar (160 CE), the whole cosmos was altered. For about 80 years, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai walked the earth, the most recondite mysteries were visible in all of nature. Even small children effortlessly revealed words of the deepest wisdom (Zohar I:93a). Love of soul and spirit prevailed among Rabbi Shimon’s disciples (Zohar II:190b).

When Rabbi Shimon departed this earth, he ascended to the heavens on four great wings. He took with him all books of sublime secrets and legends, leaving not a one (Zohar I:217a). Yet he bequeathed unto the world a tiny bit of his wisdom, the tenth of an ephah. This remnant was hidden away in a small pot “before God” (Exodus 16:33). Since that time, anyone who seeks kabbalistic wisdom must search for the place of the divine and there endeavor to open the vessel containing the vestige of Rabbi Shimon’s teaching.

The foregoing tale belongs to the realm of myth, in a time beyond time. When it comes to Kabbalah, myth is the only true way to recount the turning points in history. The non-mythical correlate to this tale is the enormous change in Jewish religiosity wrought by the advent of Kabbalah in the 12th and 13th centuries, whose crowning achievement was the Zoharic literature. The historical authors, as well as the dates and even places of authorship, remain hotly debated by academics. As renowned scholar and theologian Melila Hellner-Eshed has said, the more academics analyze and dissect the Zohar, the more mysterious the process of its composition becomes. The only true way to tell its turning points is to recount one of the many myths it tells about itself…as I have just done.

Nathaniel Berman is a professor of international affairs, law and modern culture at Brown University and author ofThe “Other Side” of Kabbalah: Divine and Demonic in the Zohar and Kabbalistic Tradition.


Babylonian Talmud.

Excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud. (British Library)



Our world can change in a number of ways. It can change for the better through developments or innovations that improve human life or the life of the Jewish people. In 200 CE, the Mishnah (the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions and the first major work of rabbinic literature) was written down. If it hadn’t been, it might have been the end of Judaism. In 550 CE, the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud was finished. That meant the end of a huge cumulative process. The first printed volume of codes was published circa 1450 and the first printed Talmudic tractate in 1483. Printing changed our world incredibly. It was a tool of empowerment because information could be so much more widely circulated.

In 1791, French Jews became full citizens. And in the wake of that, a number of other European republics gave Jews citizenship. We all know what a complex change that was. When Jews became citizens, they had equal rights with all other citizens. Special taxes, for example, could not be levied upon them simply because they were Jews—a common practice in both European and Islamic countries. However, when Jews had the freedom to assimilate, a flood of Jews left Judaism. It was a very, very big change from the past. In 1948, the State of Israel was established. That’s a huge difference.

Our world can also change disastrously. Examples of that are 1095, the First Crusade; 1492, the expulsion of Jews from Spain; 1648, the Khelmnytsky massacres in Russia; 1938, Kristallnacht.

Rachel Adler is a rabbi, professor of Jewish religious thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of the forthcoming Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom Stories by a Feline Mystic.

Read the extended response from Rachel Adler here.




For modernity, a really influential moment is the year 1205, which saw the emergence of a racialization of Jewish identity or Jewish status in Christian theology and law. In 1205, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter called Etsi Judeaos, in response to a problem in France where the Jews were not behaving in the way that the Pope thought was appropriate. He brought in biblical commentary as a justification for social and legal subordination of Jews to Christians. This idea emerges out of medieval ideas about Jews, earlier Christian ideas about Jews and  medieval commentaries on the Bible that say the stories of Ham and Cain and Ishmael are actually allegories signaling the forced submission of Jews to Christians through enslavement, even though those texts in the Hebrew Bible don’t have anything to do with crucifixion or the Jews. The Pope’s letter says that the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified Jesus. It says that Jews should understand that they are slaves rejected by God, and by the effect of their alleged participation in the crucifixion should recognize themselves as the slaves of those whom Jesus’ death set free.

This letter was incorporated into the larger code of international church law, which governed all of Western Christianity. It meant that all Jews in areas over which the church had authority were liable to legal punishment if they somehow behaved in a way that put them in a position of power over Christians, and that they were inherently inferior and needed to visibly occupy that inferior status or be forced into it. This resulted in the gradual expulsion of Jews from Western Europe.

Once this construct of inherent hereditary inferiority enters into the ecclesiastical legal system, it can be transferred to other groups. The same idea is used to punish Muslims for the crime of the crucifixion, even though Islam didn’t exist at that time. It is also used to justify the idea of Muslims as slaves, and to justify and describe the relationship of Africans to Christians, even though there were Africans who were already Christian. The curse of Ham is originally developed around Jews, but once there’s expansion into Africa in the 15th century, it translates into justifying the actual enslavement of Africans.

M. Lindsay Kaplan is an English professor at Georgetown University. Her latest book is Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity.




Generally I would say that there is very little chance of identifying a moment where everything changes, but 1492 divides the before and after for the Jews in terms of modernity. It was the moment in which Europe and the Americas found each other.

There is no proof that Columbus was actually a Jew, but there are rumors, and the moment Columbus set sail was crucial for the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, who were being persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. Columbus, like Moses, opened up a new promised land for the Jews. The year 1492 is the moment when Spain expels the Jews, finds what would become the new colonies and encounters a whole new world of people whom it will need to address and look at differently.

It was a very traumatic year for the Jews, but it was also the year in which a number of Jews were able to go to other places, such as the Balkans, Italy, Amsterdam, Northern Africa and Palestine. It is the time during which the Arabs are pushed out of Spain, and the country becomes a nation in our contemporary sense. It is the end of the Reconquista, the final conquest by Catholic Spain of the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula. There’s another crucial reason why 1492 is very important. It’s the year when the very first grammar of the Spanish language is published, the moment in which Spanish becomes, so to speak, an official language, and it is done by poet and humanist Antonio de Nebrija, a New Christian who is a descendant of Jews.

Several hundred years later a descendant of Sephardic Jews, Emma Lazarus, would write “The New Colossus,” a sonnet that is engraved on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Just a few months before writing that sonnet, Lazarus wrote another one, titled “1492.”

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.          
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!…

The vision of what had happened in 1492 reverberated in the vision of the United States as a safe haven. Often Jews have to suffer enormously in order to make it to the next diaspora, and  1492 is no exception. But it proves yet again that as one door closes, other doors open, and Jews find ways in the next chapter of their history to look back at what they lost, and also to be re-energized and do new things.

Ilan Stavans is a professor of humanities and Latino culture at Amherst College and host of NPR’s In Contrast.




Jews had lived in Portugal since the time of the Roman Empire, but those centuries of peaceful coexistence came to a violent end in 1506. On April 19 of that year, a pogrom broke out in Lisbon that was led by Dominican priests shouting “Death to the Jews!” Rioters following these fanatical churchmen through the city ended up murdering some 2,000 New Christians, Jews who’d been forcibly baptized in a mass conversion nine years earlier. Their bodies were dragged to Lisbon’s central square—the Rossio—and burned in two huge pyres. Given that there were between 3,000 and 6,000 New Christians living in Lisbon at the time, every family would have lost a son, daughter, father, mother or sibling during the three days of rioting.  Historians refer to this pogrom as the Lisbon Massacre of 1506. This tragic episode became a lesson: Portugal’s Jews realized that they would always be regarded as dangerous heretics in the country of their birth and never be entirely safe. Some courageous New Christians stayed and continued to practice Judaism in secret over the next decades, but others left for Istanbul, Smyrna, Salonika and a number of other welcoming places, creating a large and important Portuguese Jewish diaspora.

Richard Zimler is the author of the 1998 bestseller, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. His latest novel is The Gospel According to Lazarus.

Read the extended response from Richard Zimler here.


16th century painting of Krakow
A view of Krakow in the 16th century from Frans Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum. (Wikimedia Commons)



In 1550, Jews began to have full civil rights in European society. In 1547 in Italy, Pope Paul III had allowed Jews to settle in Ancona and have parity with Christians. About the same time in Eastern Europe, Jews were invited by Polish magnates into private market towns, what we call shtetls. Jews again were given parity with Christians. The Sejm (Poland’s parliament) had allowed magnates to establish these private towns for Jews on their estates.

Contrary to the notion of the shtetl as a place of extreme poverty, the shtetl of the 16th century to the mid-19th century was a place of affluence. The poverty depicted in Fiddler in the Roof came in the second half of the 19th century. But before then, Jews had privileges allowing them to own property (houses, not agricultural land), build synagogues and become part of the urban landscape. It was a great leap forward. In many shtetls, Jews, for the first time, were awarded full equal rights and full citizenship.

At the end of the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by three powers: Prussia, Russia and the Hapsburgs. Under Prussian rule, Jews gained rights in 1833.  And in Galicia, in 1867,  Jews were granted equal rights by the Hapsburgs. There were, however, steps backward. The 1648 Khelmnytsky disaster (the Cossack uprising in the eastern territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that resulted in mass atrocities committed against the civilian population, especially Jews) was directed at Polish-colonizing nobles who used Jews to manage their estates. But this was the beginning of Jewish emancipation, the process through which Jews obtained political and social equality.

It’s a struggle we are still engaged in today. It’s a step forward and a step back, a constant ebb and flow, progress and retrogression. When people talk about anti-Semitism, it should be seen as an attack on the equality and emancipation that began around 1550.

David Sorkin is a professor of Jewish history at Yale University and author of  Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries.




In 1677, a manuscript that had been locked away in a desk drawer was quietly published. Its author had died the year before, at the age of 44. He had become so notorious during his brief years that he had judged his magnum opus unsafe to publish during his lifetime. Excommunicated by his own Jewish community of Amsterdam when he was only 23, it had then fallen on greater Christian Europe to castigate him. It was a small group of his friends, all of them dissenting Christians, who arranged for the publication of the book that bore the incendiary title Ethica. In an age when it was unthinkable to try to establish ethics on non-theistic grounds, making no allusions to God’s intentions or commandments, this is exactly what this book did.

The notoriety of the author of Ethica didn’t diminish with his death. Well-rehearsed denunciations of the philosopher became a prerequisite for entrance into the academic and ecclesiastical ranks. Perhaps, in retrospect, it wasn’t prudent for the religious and academic authorities to demand that those seeking admittance to their ranks must carefully consider the arguments of Ethica in order to know how to refute them, since, for some, the careful consideration led to persuasion. An underground appreciation of the book and its author gradually gathered strength internationally, ultimately flowering in what we now call the Enlightenment: rejecting the traditional forms of authority, both religious and civic, promoting reason and science over religious dogma, and republicanism over monarchy. The spirit of the book even found its way into the writing of our Declaration of Independence, whose major author, Thomas Jefferson, was an admirer of the book that had been quietly published in 1677. And the name of the author? It is, of course, Baruch Spinoza.

Rebecca Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. She has authored ten books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Betraying Spinoza.




In 1782 there were fewer than two million Jews in the world, about three-quarters of them in Europe. That winter, the usually skeptical German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was for a short while swept up with enthusiasm. The Edict of Tolerance, signed by the Emperor Joseph II, had recently been published in Vienna, arousing great hopes and expectations. At the end of January, Naphtali Herz Wessely’s Words of Peace and Truth, the far-reaching program for the transformation of Jewish education, was printed in Berlin. “Thank kind Providence,” Mendelssohn wrote, “that I live to see yet, in my old days, the happy time, when the Rights of Man are beginning to be taken to heart, in their true extent.”

Portrait of Moses Mendelssohn.

Portrait of Moses Mendelssohn. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the very time when the Haskalah [the Jewish enlightenment] was emerging and  faith in the supernatural was being subjected to criticism, the Hasidic movement of religious revival was on the rise in Eastern Europe. In 1782, the Korits press printed Tsofnat Pa’anei’ah, one of the first Hasidic books. Its elevation of the mission of the tzaddik had a negative effect on the status of the non-Hasidic elite of Talmudic scholars, known as mitnagdim, and was a rebellion against the religious elite.

Then on December 11 came another formative document: Nachal habesor, signed by the founders of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, The Society of the Friends of Hebrew Literature, headed by Isaac Euchel, a young maskil [enlightened Jew] from Copenhagen. It was the “declaration of independence” of the movement, which was founded in Koenigsberg, Prussia. Their new publication, Hameasef, the first Hebrew periodical, which started publication in 1784, was intended to create a modern network of communication linking the maskilim in Europe and enhancing their ability to exert influence.

If we look at the history of modern Jewish culture as a chessboard, then in 1782 most of the pieces of Jewish modernity were already laid out on the board. The Kulturkampf that erupted at that point marked the new boundaries and great schisms at the heart of Jewish society. The evaluations at the time were divided, but in all camps, people felt that for better or worse modern times had begun. In 1782 we can already observe the emergence of modern self-awareness, challenges and identities, and also the great debate over the desirable vision for the future of the Jewish people.

Shmuel Feiner is a professor of Jewish History at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and author of Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity.




Everything changed for Jews in France in 1791, the year they received full civil rights. The Jews had been expelled from France in the Middle Ages and had begun to come back in the 16th century. When the French annexed the German-speaking territories of what became Alsace-Lorraine, the Jews were allowed to stay, but with severe limits on what professions they could practice or where they could live. In 1791, the Revolutionary National Assembly voted to give the Jews full citizenship as part of its philosophy of the Rights of Man. Not that the Rights of Man were applied equally everywhere—the French continued to hold slaves in their Caribbean colonies, justifying the practice by the argument that the Declaration of the Rights of Man protected property, including human property—but in France itself it led to civil rights first for Protestants, then for Jews. It was not a gift without conditions—the Jews were expected to give up their communal organizations and courts and surrender any self-governing authority to the state. When Napoleon took power, he created a communal organization for the Jews, the Consistoire, which still exists. But he also passed legislation accusing the Jews of usury and demanding that they stop exploiting Christians, which was a signal for pogroms to break out in eastern France.

The Napoleonic army did break down ghetto walls in Eastern and Central Europe. Early emancipation also set an example for other countries, and indeed to the whole world, of giving Jews opportunities. During the French Revolution, Jews served as officers in the French Army, which hadn’t happened before. A century later there were prominent intellectuals like Émile Durkheim, actresses like Rachel Félix and Sarah Bernhardt, bankers like the Rothschilds and successful politicians. That’s the good side, of course. The bad side was the reaction against emancipation, which was extremely strong: the Dreyfus affair, and later Vichy.   

Even today in France, there are these two sides: There are tons of Jews in extremely prominent positions—intellectuals, journalists, entertainers, politicians and TV personalities—and yet something like 35 percent of French Jews have said they’re thinking about emigrating because of anti-Semitism.

David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton and author most recently of the forthcoming Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolutions.




The best-remembered years in Jewish history tend to be associated with tragedies, from the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE to the expulsion from Spain in 1492. But 1881 deserves to be remembered as the year that led, by a long and convoluted road, to the salvation of modern Judaism.

On March 13, 1881, Tsar Alexander II was killed by bomb-throwing assassins in St. Petersburg. While neither of the killers was Jewish, the government encouraged Russians to blame the killing on the Jews, leading to dozens of pogroms throughout the empire. (It was in 1881 that the word “pogrom” entered the English language.) In May of the following year, the new tsar announced a series of repressive measures aimed at the Jews, forbidding them from purchasing land or living in major cities. These “May Laws” made existing Jewish poverty even worse.

Victims of a pogrom in Kiev, Ukraine in 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

In response, Eastern Europe’s Jews began to emigrate. Starting in 1881, a total of two million Jews would leave Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and other Ashkenazi heartlands for the United States, before new anti-immigrant laws closed America’s doors in 1924. They transformed what had been a small Jewish community, largely of German origin, into the thriving American Jewish world we know today.

At the same time, a smaller number of Jews started to look to Palestine as a solution. The Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) movement began in 1881, and the next year, ten of its members founded Rishon LeZion, the first Zionist settlement, which today is Israel’s fourth largest city. By World War I, about 35,000 Jews had settled in Palestine—the nucleus of what would become the State of Israel.

Of course, in 1881 the Jews of Eastern Europe never imagined that their civilization would soon be annihilated. But if it weren’t for the movements to America and Israel that began in that year, Ashkenazi civilization might have had no successors.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic who teaches at Columbia University and is the author of The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.




For American women and for America’s Jewish women, 1893 was a pivotal year. When Chicago’s elites began planning for a world’s fair marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World, they were determined to include women in the more than 200 congresses—we would call them conferences—to be held at the fair exploring recent developments in science and technology, culture and the arts, and religion. As a result, one-fourth of all the congress speakers at the World’s Columbian Exposition were female, including a number of America’s Jewish women, many of them participants in the fair’s Jewish Women’s Congress.

In September 1893, 28 Jewish women addressed visitors to the Exposition over a period of four days, speaking for the first time ever as authorities on Jewish history, culture, religion and social welfare. They drew such large crowds that some sessions had to be repeated. At the conclusion of the Jewish Women’s Congress at the Exposition, the attendees founded the National Council of Jewish Women, the first of the powerhouse women’s organizations that still stand today. (Jewish women were not comfortable joining the largest women’s organization of the day, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.) In its earliest years, the Council’s social-welfare activities included settlement houses for immigrants and stationing an agent at Ellis Island to greet girls and women traveling on their own to make sure that they did not fall into nefarious hands.

Rosa Sonneschien

Photograph of Rosa Sonneschein. (Courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the Jewish American archives)

Jewish women also presented papers at other congresses at the Exposition. Rosa Sonneschein, the future editor of the first English-language Jewish women’s magazine, The American Jewess, spoke at the Press Congress, and Nina Morais Cohen discussed Homer’s poems at the Congress of Representative Women. Henrietta Szold, still two decades away from founding Hadassah, and Josephine Lazarus, the sister of the poet Emma Lazarus, presented papers at the World’s Parliament of Religions. In 1893, Jewish women burst into view on the national stage and have never retreated.

Finally, there is a footnote and additional reason why 1893 stands out for Jewish women and all American women. The first dishwasher was ceremoniously unveiled at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Pamela S. Nadell is a professor of women’s and gender history and director of Jewish studies at American University. She is the author of American Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today.




Photograph of Theodor Herzl

Photograph of Theodor Herzl (1897). (Wikimedia Commons)

The landmark events of 1897—a truly remarkable, banner year—determined, in great measure, the course of modern Jewish history, and the current State of the (Jewish) Nation. In 1897, as is widely known, Theodor Herzl—having just a year earlier published his epic work and first political Zionist manifesto, Der Judenstaat (The Jews’ State, or The Jewish State)—convened the First International Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, setting in motion a political process that ultimately gave rise to the State of Israel. Another major secular, and revolutionary, Jewish movement, the General Jewish Labor Movement (Algemeiner Yiddisher Arbeter Bund), which would become the ideological nemesis of Zionism, was founded that same year in a basement in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, then under brutal tsarist rule. Despite its ultimate failure to flourish in Poland and Russia, the Bund’s influence is still felt in its institutional establishment of a secular form of Jewish identity that has come to define the Judaism of a large majority of contemporary world Jewry. Finally, in North America, there appeared that same year the inaugural issue of the Forverts, the Yiddish Daily Forward, which quickly grew to have the widest influence of any diaspora newspaper in Jewish history, helping hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speaking immigrants adapt to, and thus prosper in, the Goldeneh Medineh [the Golden Land—America]. The Forverts was critically important in the establishment of a large, stable and flourishing Jewish community in America.

Allan Nadler is a rabbi, author and professor emeritus of religious studies, and former director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.

Read the extended response from Rabbi Allan Nadler here.


Henri Bergson, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud.
From left: Henri Bergson, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud. (Wikimedia Commons)



In 1900, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams; in 1903, the French philosopher Henri Bergson published the article “Introduction to metaphysics”; in 1912, Émile Durkheim published The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life; in 1913, Marcel Proust published Swann’s Way, the first part of In Search of Lost Time. These four figures, all of Jewish birth, some quite religious in their upbringing (Durkheim was the son of a rabbi and trained as a rabbi, and Freud had a solid Jewish education and studied the Talmud and Torah as a young man, though he didn’t talk about it much), changed the way we think of time. In psychology, sociology, philosophy and literature, they put a name to something that was happening anyway: the division between private, subjective time and public, objective time, which was becoming important with the advent of railway schedules and global business. Cultural historians identify this distinction as the beginning of modernity.

Freud’s theory of dreams introduced the idea that there is an interior time that is not chronological. It made a clear distinction between the objective time of a patient’s biography and the subjective time in which the patient experienced it. Bergson’s essay attacked what he called objective and scientific time, which he distinguished from “duration,” the inner time we experience. Space, he argued, is static, time is dynamic; space is divisible, time is not; space is quantitative, time is qualitative. Next, Durkheim, the sociologist, talked about social or collective time, calendars and the rhythms of collective activity, embodied in rituals and feasts and public ceremonies. In his view, religion was the source of public time. And in Swann’s Way, Proust slowed time down. It takes hours and hours of anguish for his mother to get upstairs and give him that goodnight kiss, and it’s highly associative. It’s proving Freud’s point that time is associative, and also Bergson’s point that time is experienced, not measured. One literary theorist has calculated that time passes on average 16 times slower in Proust than in Balzac. It’s the subjective time of memory, moving backward and forward.

These ideas are secular, but they’re Jewish too—the nonlinear time of memory, and the distinction between the linear time of history, which is the distinctive Jewish contribution of the Bible, and the circular time that keeps coming around, God’s eternal time.

Judith Shulevitz is a journalist, editor, critic and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.




Classic Zionist history has generally presented the pre-1948 period through the lens of five waves of migrations, or aliyot (literally “ascents,” the classic term for pilgrimage to Jerusalem), each with its own character, failures and successes. The year 1904 is taken as the start of the second, and most famous, of these waves, concluding in 1914.

What made the Second Aliyah so special? First, its numbers—some 35,000 in 10 years, driven by the terrifying pogroms and crushing poverty of the decaying Russian Empire. The Western European Zionism of Theodor Herzl supplied the movement with political organization and direction, but it was Eastern European Jews who gave the movement its demographic heft and its most powerful moral claims.

This Second Aliyah also brought large numbers of highly motivated young activists such as David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, and writers and thinkers such as Aaron David Gordon, Yosef Hayim Brenner, and the poet Rachel (Bluwstein). These migrants brought youthful idealism and energy, and, crucially, their program differed from Herzl’s Western European, liberal, middle-class nationalism and its relatively benign view of colonialism. They were socialists and revolutionaries; unlike Herzl, an assimilated Jew who imagined a religiously benign Jewish state, they were in passionate rebellion against tradition and actively sought to create a new Hebrew culture of their own. They loom large for the institutions they created out of those ideas and ideals—the labor unions, the Labor Party, the kibbutzim, the newspapers and publishing houses and more—and because they were able to take control of Jewish Palestine’s political institutions in the wake of Herzlian Zionism’s greatest achievement, the Balfour Declaration, and after World War II.

Photograph of David Ben-Gurion (1918).

Photograph of David Ben-Gurion (1918). (Wikimedia Commons)

Another important émigré who came in 1904 was a revolutionary activist and thinker of a different kind, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who laid the foundations for Religious Zionist thought and the modern Chief Rabbinate. He too had a radical understanding of the place of Zionism in Jewish history, and of these young immigrants themselves. In his reading of Jewish history, deeply informed by the Kabbalah, he saw their principled idealistic rebellion against tradition as itself part of the messianic advent, and their criticisms of tradition as godsends to revitalize Jewish commitments to peoplehood and social justice.

Most Orthodox rabbis of the time didn’t support Zionism—so secular, and so contrary to centuries of the political quietism that had served the Jews so well for so long. For the rabbis who supported Zionism, it was the best scheme offered to ameliorate Jewish social, political and economic troubles, but not a grounds for revitalizing Jewish spirituality and culture. Rav Kook saw things differently, with deep consequences down to the present. His latter-day followers were spearheads of the current settler movement and saw themselves as the truest inheritors of the idealism of the Second Aliyah. Secular Israel, for its part, has, for better or worse, yet to offer a definitive answer to that challenge.

An even sharper counterpoint to all the above is another important year, 1878, which saw the founding of Petach Tikvah, the first Jewish agricultural settlement—two years before the “official” opening of Zionist history with the First Aliyah. Those 1878 pioneers were not at all socialist revolutionaries, or even Maskilic, Enlightenment Jews, but very traditional Ashkenazi Jews—some migrants, others whose families had been in Palestine for generations—who for a variety of reasons, both pious and practical, thought Jews should become economically viable in the Land of Israel. They weren’t motivated by Zionism because it didn’t exist yet. And let us not forget that alongside all of these groups were the Sephardic Jews who had been in the Land of Israel for a very long time, building institutions, societies and cultures of their own. In other words, looking at specific years can be helpful points of orientation; but we can’t let them blind us to the richness and diversity and complexity of everything that was going on in Late Ottoman Palestine, a time when all sorts of possibilities had not yet been foreclosed, and all kinds of questions not yet answered.

Yehudah Mirsky is professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University and author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.




When I consider the last couple of hundred years of intellectual development as we—not just Jews, but we as a species—have sought to understand the big question of reality ever more deeply, the year that pops out is 1905, when Albert Einstein (who of course is among the more famous of the tribe) revolutionized our understanding of space and time and set us on a path to revolution that ultimately changed our understanding of the fundamental laws of how space, time and matter behave. This is often called Einstein’s miracle year, his annus mirabilis, when he wrote four papers that forced us to conceive of everything completely differently. Our understanding of the world thus went through perhaps the most radical shift that it has ever been subjected to. Until 1905, the view of reality that most people (and most scientists) held was not much different from the view that came to us from Isaac Newton. Einstein realized that space and time are far more fluid than Newton would ever have thought: Time elapses at a different rate for you than it does for me if we’re moving relative to each other; space has different sizes for you compared to me if we’re moving relative to one another. Everything that we do—everything we think, everything we experience—takes place in some region of space during some interval of time, so if you learn that space and time are not what you thought they were, in essence you’re learning that reality is not what you thought it was—and that’s a big deal.

Colorized image of Albert Einstein (1939).

Colorized image of Albert Einstein (1939). (Flickr, Donkey Hotey)

It was a Jewish man who was the spark of the revolution, but it was a revolution that, in the end, everybody can enjoy and marvel at. To Einstein, being a Jew was not about adhering to particular rituals that are specific to a certain faith. But he often invoked God when talking about the quest he was on. He wanted to know God’s thoughts; he said everything else is just details. He wanted to know whether God had any choice in creating the universe. He was thinking about God as representative of the deep harmonies of reality, of the deep laws that describe how particles move and how they affect the structure of space and time.

Brian Greene is a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University. His latest book is Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe.

Read the extended response from Brian Greene here.




Try to imagine what it was like being a Polish Jewish Zionist on the eve of World War I. You lived in a country that had been almost completely erased from the map. Poles were powerless in their own country, and you could be pretty sure they would remain so, unless Tsarist Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary all fell apart—which was plainly impossible. And yet that’s just what happened.

Suppose in 1914 you went to a not-yet-
Mandatory Palestine. It was obvious, as it was to David Ben-Gurion, how you’d go about creating a Jewish state: You’d have to become the Jewish representative in the Ottoman parliament, replacing the old Romaniote Jews, and advocate for independence for the Jews in Palestine. This is why Ben-Gurion went to Salonika to learn Turkish and then to Istanbul to study Turkish law, and it’s why in early pictures you see all the leaders of the Zionist movement wearing fezzes. 

For Jews in Europe, as for so many others, 1914 was a disastrous moment. In 1914, all of Austria-Hungary was held together by a leader, Emperor Franz Joseph, who had come to office in 1848 and held this dysfunctional multinational empire together by force of personality. Thirty years later the two world wars had totally destroyed the Jewish world. The tolerant Austro-Hungarian Empire was replaced by smaller nation-states that defined citizenship by ethnicity, not loyalty to the emperor. It was pretty much the end of serious royalism, which was a system Jews could live under, protected by the king. It showed the weakness of Jewish assimilation; about 30 Italian generals in World War I were Jewish, but later their patriotism counted for nothing. At the beginning of the war, the misconceptions about how this was going to end up, what it was all about, how long it was going to take, were colossal. As in many of these pivotal years, you couldn’t foresee how things were going to end.

Robert Siegel, a special literary correspondent for Moment, was host of NPR’s All Things Considered.

Read the extended response from Robert Siegel here.




The year 1924 was the year Congress enacted the Johnson-Reed Act, which set very strict immigration quotas and reduced Jewish immigration to a trickle. It was momentous because it made clear why there was a need for a Jewish homeland, a place without restrictions where all Jews could enter. It also made the Holocaust possible, thus paving the way for the destruction of European Jewry. Without it, the whole history of Judaism would have been different. Several million more Jews would have found refuge. Many other nations took their cues from the United States’ enactment of Johnson-Reed and also closed their doors.

At its peak, between 1903 and 1907, the U.S. accepted an average of 123,000 Jews a year. Between 1925 and 1930, it accepted an average of only 11,240 a year. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the number of Jews admitted was down to an average of 5,300 a year.

In the early years, Hitler was quite willing to expel Jews. If someone would have taken them, he would have offloaded them quite gladly. It was only later that Nazi policy turned to extermination. The fact that the U.S. would not allow the St. Louis to land on our shores in 1939 represented a microcosm of the nativist sentiment that wouldn’t permit Jews to enter.

We don’t often think of 1924 and how difficult it became for refugees to enter the United States. We don’t think of the impact. But when you consider the restriction of immigration and what it led to, you realize it shaped the two most important events for Jews in the 20th century: the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.

Jonathan Sarna is professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.




If I had to choose one year, I would choose 1933, specifically Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany. At that moment there were nine million Jews in Europe. At Hitler’s death, there were three million. Two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were gone. And with that loss there was so much heartache: the destruction of communities, architecture, life, everything. And we haven’t recovered yet, regardless of the fact that we now have the State of Israel. We have not regained the world Jewish population we had when Hitler came to power. I think it has also changed the world because it taught us once again that anti-Semitism is irrational. There is nothing in particular that the Jews did to deserve that kind of response, that challenge to their very existence; it was a crimeless crime.

And what was so important about this iteration of anti-Semitism was that it was state-sponsored; it was not just population prejudice. By studying it you can see how states are able to rid themselves of populations. It was a process of grooming, by which I mean that it was done tiny piece by tiny piece. The whole system of law was overturned, the whole system of what it means to hold a society together, the whole system of language—everything was overturned. Hitler’s goal was to take over the whole world, so 1933 is simply one little dot on his timeline. But until it was over, the world experienced two wars simultaneously. One was the war of Germany against the world, and the other was the war of Germany against its own Jewish population and the Jewish populations of every other country.

Shulamit Reinharz is professor of sociology emerita at Brandeis University and founder of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.




Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop (1939). (Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop (1939). (Wikimedia Commons)

The date I would choose is very clear to me. It’s August 23rd, 1939. That was the date of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, in which Hitler and Stalin decided to murder the Jews by dividing Poland. That was the signal, the date when the world fundamentally changed.

I understand it not as one more event, and the Holocaust not as one more genocide and not as one more injustice, but as a shift, because by eliminating the Jews of Europe, world history was changed. Those people no longer exist. That is why everything about the world is different: its ethics, its values, its view of the future.

To me this is a trans-historical event. Those who would carry a world, who had what we considered historical culture, are no longer there. There’s a gap that can never be filled—not by the creation of Israel, not by new generations of Jews. To me that is the void of history. The black hole into which reality is swallowed.

Daniel Libeskind, who was born in Poland, is an architect and urban designer. His projects include the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Read the extended response from Daniel Libeskind here.




I can’t think of another moment in time when Jewish history held its breath with greater anxiety and expectation than on Friday, May 14, 1948, at 4 p.m., when David Ben-Gurion pronounced: “We hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish state in eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

We 11-year-olds knew that something was brewing, but not what or when. Our parents told us only to play close to home because “times are not the same.” We were old enough to listen to the radio and read newspapers, but still unable to grasp the seriousness of the messages that came from Beirut and Cairo of  “rivers of blood” and “monumental massacre.” Even the fall of the four Etzion Block kibbutzim [in the Judean hills between Jerusalem and Hebron] the day earlier and the execution of its 127 defenders by the Arab Legion did not shock our naive minds to the reality of the time.

Yes, we had heard what happened in Europe. Each of us had family members who had perished (my maternal grandparents included), but our parents kept us shielded from the horrific face of reality; they vowed to bring us up as “normal Jews,” unscarred by faraway European anti-Semitism. We sang and screamed as loudly as we could: “Free Aliya!! Free Aliya!!” But when survivors (“new Jews”) started arriving from inferno Europe, we did not understand why their skin was so white, why they walked so meekly, and why they could not talk like us.

My mother was right, I should have played closer to home. The next day, May 15, my playmates and I found ourselves hugging each other in a staircase while Egyptian warplanes bombarded our town. A neighbor opened the door and said: “Children, it’s going to get much worse, but we will prevail.” We could not possibly imagine how anything could get worse, but it did. Our neighbor’s 19-year-old son came back in a coffin two weeks later, and his mother stood glued to her window for the next five years, awaiting her son’s return.

Some 6,000 dead, one percent of the population, was the price of independence, mostly young men, kids from around the block who smiled to us warmly, waved good-bye and went to fight five armies. It is only now, as a grandfather, that I begin to understand the magnitude of that historical event on May 14, 1948, and how it empowered a scattered tribe of beggars and peddlers to lift itself from the margin of history and create a world center of art, science and entrepreneurship. It is only now that I understand what the miracle of Israel did to the posture of every Jew worldwide and how it currently sustains the collective identity of American Jewry.

Judea Pearl is professor emeritus of computer science and statistics, director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at UCLA and author of The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect.

Read the extended response from Judea Pearl here.




The year 1961 was when Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, was tried in Jerusalem. The ramifications for that were twofold. On the one hand, for the Jewish community, the fact that the Eichmann trial was so public, as no trial ever before had been, began to open the eyes of many, many Jews, particularly American Jews, not only to the reality of the Holocaust but to the implications and significance of the coming into existence of the State of Israel. You can chart the upsurge in American Jewish interest in and support for Israel, which would reach a peak in 1967 on the eve of the Six Day War. It’s those two events in tandem, the first of which was the Eichmann trial, that would generate that extraordinary level of interest and support, and the kind of interface between the Israeli and the American Jewish communities over the decades that followed.

The Eichmann trial not only opened the eyes of much of the world to what the Holocaust had really been, but it was also a reminder to the world of the principles enunciated at Nuremberg—the concept of crimes against humanity, the concept of genocide, the concept of the human obligation to prevent that kind of mass murder. For a time it seemed to have an effect on the world’s thinking about humanity. I think the implications of the trial also carry over in the United States into the civil rights movement. And worldwide, but particularly in the United States, they also carry over into the feminist movement. The whole age of the liberation movements that developed by the late 1960s and into the 1970s can in part be traced to that year and that event, and what it forced people to think about.

Ori Soltes is professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University and the former director and chief curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum.

Read the extended response from Ori Soltes here.


Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Wikimedia Commons)



Too often Jewish history is a story that moves from persecution to suffering. Every now and then, it offers a moment for celebration. In 1965, the world seemed to like the Jews. Radical events took place that year that broke barriers. The Vatican issued a revolutionary statement, Nostra Aetate, condemning anti-Semitism and affirming the continued covenant between God and the Jewish people. Jews, welcomed by African Americans as allies in the civil rights movement, joined the Selma march for voting rights. A professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary broke with tradition to celebrate his daughter’s bat mitzvah at a synagogue on Shabbat morning. The State of Israel’s leaders, Levi Eshkol and Zalman Shazar, were warmly received by the United States government, while the U.S. Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, which allowed relatives of U.S. citizens to immigrate. And an organization of Jewish and Christian clergy protesting the war in Vietnam was founded that sponsored the famous lecture by Martin Luther King, Jr. declaring the war immoral and poisonous to the soul of the country.

Why 1965? We were in high spirits, optimistic and eager to join the urgent moral conflicts of the day. Our souls, wounded by the Shoah, were restored by the central role of the Hebrew Bible in the civil rights movement. Two plays had opened on Broadway in 1964—The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth, and Fiddler on the Roof, based on stories by Sholem Aleichem. The former outlined the moral depravity of the Catholic church during the Shoah, while the latter gave us permission to celebrate the heritage that had been destroyed.

Within a few years, the mood of celebration shifted. King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in 1968; a student revolt began at universities and spread; anti-Semitism and racism deeply damaged our collaboration with African Americans, and the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War turned us from joy at our victory to despair over peace. In 1965, we had leaders such as Abraham Joshua Heschel; a few years later came the right-wing, racist demagoguery of Meir Kahane.

Susannah Heschel is professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College and author of  The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.




As the capital of modern Israel, 1967 is the most important year in Jerusalem’s history. In the morning of the sixth of June of that year, as a desperate company of Israeli paratroopers shed the blood of more than half its soldiers in what became the legendary battle of Ammunition Hill, Israel began its attack on the Jordanian forces holding East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). By June 7, in a move that enraptured Israelis and many global observers, the Israel Defense Forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem, and Israeli troops, followed by a victorious Moshe Dayan, shed tears at the ancient Wailing Wall, supposedly the western side of the Second Temple of the Jews. It took three more days to raze more than 100 small houses huddling at the side of the Wall in the now-forgotten Moroccan Quarter. By the end of June, drunk on sudden and glorious victory on the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian fronts, and relieved of the horrible existential fear that had nestled in every Jewish Israeli heart, Israel announced that the newly unified Jerusalem and its holy sites were now open to Jewish, Christian and Muslim worshipers.

Nothing that came later compared to those heady days. Not the sudden visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, nor the historic visit of Pope John Paul II, nor the noble dignitaries arriving to share the grief at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. 1967 harked back to King David and King Herod and to the greatest conquerors of the Middle Ages. It upended Israel’s subsequent political history; it unleashed exhilaration, hubris, Messianism, ultra-nationalism and bravado. Jerusalem became bigger, more beautiful and more expensive than it had ever been. With its great appeal to dreamers and lunatics alike, it gradually drifted off from Tel Aviv, and the two cities now belong to different galaxies.

Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor of history at Haifa University’s Faculty of Law, head of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought and coauthor of Jews and Words.




On August 26, 1970, Betty Friedan, whose 1963 The Feminine Mystique is credited with sparking second-wave feminism in the United States, led 50,000 women down Fifth Avenue in New York City in the Women’s Strike for Equality, the first nationwide political action since the suffrage victory. I was one of the marchers in 1970 and recall the tremendous excitement we felt that day. I also remember the crowds of men who stood on the sidelines, jeering. At the defining moment of the march, Friedan addressed the crowd, quoting the ancient Orthodox Jewish prayer “I thank Thee, Lord, I was not created a woman.” She then changed it up, saying “I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman.”  A surprise even to herself, Friedan’s words at this historic moment suggest the implicit connection she made between her feminist goals and her background as a Jew. Her early experiences of anti-Semitism growing up in Peoria, Illinois, helped fuel the “passion for injustice” that led her to write The Feminine Mystique and establish the National Organization for Women. The march, the first in 50 years, marked the moment when women’s liberation was recognized as a mass movement, not just a small fringe.

Then in March 1972, members of Ezrat Nashim (literally “help for women” and the name of the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue), founded in 1971 in New York City to study and improve the status of women in Judaism, “stormed” the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in the Catskills, presented a manifesto “for Change” and held a countersession. Among its demands were that women be granted membership in synagogues, that they be counted in minyans and allowed full participation in religious observances, and that they be permitted to attend rabbinical and cantorial schools. The protest unleashed a torrent of media interest and public enthusiasm  and helped spark a cascade of change within and outside the Conservative movement, planting the seeds for a new direction for Jewish feminism.

Joyce Antler is professor emerita of Jewish history and culture, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, and author of Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement.




The year when everything changed for the Jewish people, for the world and for me was 1989. I was working that year as a journalist in Eastern and Central Europe, covering the collapse of communism and the Iron Curtain. I began in Poland in the fall of 1989, with the rise of Solidarity, the first post-communist government in the Soviet bloc. Then I went to Berlin when the Wall fell. I was in Prague right after the “Velvet Revolution,” and I went back to Berlin in March 1990 when East Germany voted to dissolve itself.

It was the most extraordinary year of my life. And it is the moment when the 2,000-year exile of the Jews from Israel ended. The reason that I date the end of the exile to 1989, rather than 1948, is because after 1948, there were still millions of Jews living in the condition of exile—enforced separation from the land of Israel. The moment that the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, nearly every diaspora Jew was now living in freedom. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel’s greatest enemy in the post-Holocaust era, brought the beginning of the great wave of Russian aliyah that transformed, even helped save, the State of Israel, marking its transition to a developed state.

The year 1989 also broke the international siege against Israel. Before 1989, Israel itself was in a kind of exile from large parts of the international community; 1989 was the end of that exile and the beginning of Israel’s acceptance. It marked the transition to Israel’s greater integration into the world, especially economically.

The year 1989 transformed Europe and ended the Cold War. It brought a close to the post-World War II era and the post-Holocaust era. We don’t yet have a name for the Jewish era we are living in now, but we are post-post-Holocaust. Despite all that has happened since, the time I spent in Eastern and Central Europe that year made me a believer in the possibility of radical transformation, of spiritual transformation and the possibility of redemption.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, journalist and author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor and Like Dreamers.

Read the extended response from Yossi Klein Halevi here.




I can’t pretend the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin one Thursday night in November 1995 at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo Accords at a square in Tel Aviv is the most important date in Jewish history because it was not. Nor was Rabin the only Jewish leader ever assassinated; we still mark the assassination of Gedaliah ben Ahikam (423 BCE) with the Fast of Gedalia each year. But the assassination changed the way Israelis looked at themselves in a number of ways.

Most important, it was evidence that the bond among the Jewish community of the land of Israel had shattered. We lost the confidence that Jews will not kill each other for political reasons. It is true that before the State of Israel was established there were rival underground organizations in the Jewish yishuv, but to murder a prime minister was something people could not imagine—including the people who were responsible for the dynamics that led to the assassination.

The wall near Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square, later renamed Rabin Square, where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. (Government Press Office)

Second, Yigal Amir, the assassin, won. He won because when Shimon Peres inherited the prime ministership he sensed it was too dangerous to go forward with the Oslo process. I am not saying I am sure that we could have had an agreement with the Palestinians. Arafat was a real problem, and I am not sure Arafat could have remained a partner even if Rabin had not been assassinated. But Peres felt he could not go as far as Rabin went during the month before the assassination. And since then, because of many events that took place on the Palestinian side, on the terror front and on the Jewish side in Israel, the chances of going forward with the peace process only diminished with time. The peace process never recovered from the assassination.

Third, the Palestinian issue gradually lost its power to dominate the Israeli political scene. The urgency of pursuing some kind of agreement became less important and less relevant. And we are now facing a commitment by the Israeli prime minister to annex 30 percent of the West Bank to Israel, with the recognition and the support of the American administration.

Fourth, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, about a year after the assassination. At first everyone assumed that the Israeli public was so shocked by the assassination that it would never dare to vote for Netanyahu, who by any measure had been involved in the kind of agitation and propaganda that led to the assassination. But by a very small margin, Netanyahu was elected, and since then he has been the central figure in Israeli politics, now serving as prime minsiter longer than David Ben-Gurion. He has gradually moved forward on his agenda, which basically ignores the presence of millions of Palestinians under Israeli control. In trying to annex parts of the West Bank by ignoring the Palestinian Authority, he is trying to create a situation where there is not a two-state solution, not a one-state solution, but a one-state-and-a-half solution, called Israel, that will militarily control all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and leave the Palestinians with some kind of local autonomous governments. I call them Bibistans. This is an idea that Rabin would not have pursued. In this way, a cycle that started in November of 1995 will possibly come to a close in 2020.

There have been other turning points, such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which really changed the way Israelis looked at their security.  That year changed the psychology of Israel. It was a brutal balance to the overconfidence we felt after the Six-Day War in 1967.  Another important year was 2000, the Second Intifada, when in a few months we moved from negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to a period of terror, which left the Israeli public with a deep reluctance to trust our neighbors. These years, along with the assasination, bring us to where we are today. 

Nahum Barnea is the chief political columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest daily newspaper. He won the Israel Prize in 2007.


We can think of many other years that are worthy of note, but space—and time—limit what we can publish. Please send your years to us at

2 thoughts on “The Year Everything Changed

  1. Jacek Maryan says:

    I would like to suggest to add: 1264 when the Statue of Kalisz was issued

  2. Jacek Maryan says:

    I am deeply disappointed that you did not mentioned: January 1942 – the Wannsee Conference

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