Dec. 31, 2004
7 Days: Year in Review

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

It takes little more than a glance at the headlines that graced the covers of US Jewish newspapers in 2004 to understand that some of the most important matters for American Jews happen outside the United States: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism in Europe, growing Islamic fundamentalism.

Between California and New York-and all the states in between-the stories in 2004 were more varied and, sometimes, more subtle.

They were about fears among some Jews that the release of Mel Gibson's controversial film on the last days of Jesus Christ would spur renewed anti-Semitism at home and abroad. There was much hand wringing and furrowed brows over how best to deal with the problem of what some have called the vanishing American Jew-the shrinking number of American Jews (5.2 million) both in real terms and as a proportion of a growing US population (294 million).

There were denunciations of a vote by the Presbyterian Church to divest from companies that do business with Israel, denunciations of anti-Israel bias among university professors teaching Middle East studies and denunciations of United Nations votes to condemn Israel again and again and again.

And through it all, Madonna kept wearing her Kabbalah red string.

Perhaps most striking about the American Jewish stories of 2004 was the extent to which Christians featured prominently. The controversy over "The Passion of the Christ," the debate on divestment, and the re-election of President Bush, which demonstrated the rising political power and influence of evangelical Christians, all highlighted the importance of Christians in America-and how what they do can affect American Jews.

As the year came to a close, the airwaves were saturated with talk about who stole Christmas in a year when department-store employees were asked to wish customers "Happy holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," when some public schools banned traditional nativity scenes from student Christmas pageants and when some Christmas carolers were told to take the year off. A few suggested the Jews were to blame.

Meanwhile, the line between Christian and Jew continued to blur.

The Forward newspaper included Madonna on its list of America's 50 most influential Jews (though she got No. 51), and the pop star gave herself a Jewish name, stopped performing on Friday nights and began incorporating tefillin into her concerts.

Actor Ashton Kutcher said he was inspired to wear head coverings by yarmulke-wearing Jews. The NBC TV network even built an entire show, "Average Joe: Adam Returns," around a nice Jewish boy from New York in search of his soul mate.

In the Democratic Party, four top presidential contenders were Jewish or had Jewish ties. Sen. John Kerry had two Jewish grandparents and a brother who converted to Judaism, Gen. Wesley Clark's grandfather was Jewish, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was married to a Jew (and was a graduate of Yeshiva University's medical school) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman was a certifiable Member of the Tribe.

Perhaps more than any other single group, these presidential candidates may have represented the face of American Jewry's future: a traditional Jew, two products of intermarriage and a non-Jew with Jewish children.

Of course, in the end they were all overshadowed by the evangelical Christians who ushered Bush to victory.

Is this a harbinger of the future? Stay tuned.