When does a year begin?


Shmuel Rosner

Dumb question? Not for Jews. The Mishnah counts four beginnings of the year; in our modern life, we count two. We have New Year’s Day, and then we have Rosh Hashanah. Thus, it is not always easy to define when our year begins.

This Rosh Hashanah finds me at the finish line of a book that I’m co-writing with a wise colleague, Camil Fuchs, a professor at Tel Aviv University. It’s about Israeli Judaism. Fuchs is Israel’s most distinguished pollster, and our book is based on vast data that were collected and analyzed in the hope of getting to better understand what Israeli Judaism stands for.

Naturally, one of the questions we asked Jewish Israelis was, “When is your ‘real’ beginning of a new year?” We wanted to know if it is Jan. 1 or Tishrei 1. We also wanted to know on which of these dates Jews engage in their annual introspection. The end of one year and the beginning of another is an arbitrary event. Only by giving it a thought, by using it for something, is it suffused with a meaning.

Rosh Hashanah is much more important to Jewish Israelis than the New Year. Most of them engage in introspection — or so they say — when one year ends and another begins. What does introspection mean? For some, it is more about the past, what they did and did not achieve last year. For others, it is most about resolutions for the next year. For some, it’s a personal exercise — it’s about them. For some, it is communal — it is about the people or the country.

What happened to my people during the past year? The quirks of human memory often make it easier to remember insignificant yet high-profile events than focus on much more profound, yet gradual, changes. What happened last year?

Israel won the Eurovision song contest with the catchy hit “Toy.” That I vividly remember, as well as previous years in which Israel triumphed in the contest (with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” in 1978; “Hallelujah” in 1979; and “Diva” in 1998).

The rest is vaguer: There was a scandal over Israel’s nation-state law; there was fear — still is — about Britain’s anti-Semitic political candidate Jeremy Corbyn; Syria’s civil war began to subside; Rabbi Aharon Shteinman, an important Charedi rabbi of great influence, died; Israel celebrated its 70 anniversary; a few Jews were detained as they entered Israel; #MeToo toppled several Jewish notables; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still under investigation; President Donald Trump was still doing his thing; Israel-Diaspora relations kept deteriorating, as they seem to always do; documents from Iran were smuggled in a brilliant Israeli operation; the United States withdrew from the Iran agreement.

Which of these events will have significant impact in the annals of Jewish history? Shteinman’s death could ignite a leadership crisis in Israel’s Charedi community — or not. The United States’ more hawkish line on Iran could alter Middle East trends — or not. The Jews of Britain could face a dramatic crisis soon — or not. Netanyahu might be at the end of a long and distinguished political journey — or not. The Nationality Law could mark a beginning of a new era — or (more likely) not.

In other words: Not a lot was settled this year. Not many things were concluded. The end of a year is an arbitrary time. Historical processes do not abide by arbitrary dates.

And yet, it is possible to pinpoint this year’s most significant Jewish moment: It is the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Unlike other aforementioned events (Eurovision victory excluded), this event marks an end of an old era and a beginning of a new era. Much like the decision to recognize the State of Israel in 1948 — remember former President Harry Truman’s “I am Cyrus” declaration? — the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a watershed moment.

Such moments often are dimmed by politics-as-usual rhetoric, controversial by nature, tainted, for some, by the leaders behind them. But the more distant they become, the easier it becomes to see them with clarity.

So yes, this was the year in which a question mark was eliminated from the phrase “Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.” If you’re looking for a way to make it more memorable, try this: The year in which Jerusalem ceased from being a political “Toy.”

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

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