So far in this presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders’ most visible appearance as a Jew came a few weeks ago when he talked about wanting to seem less Jewish.
In the “Saturday Night Live” comedy sketch he shared with Larry David and others, Sanders played a crusader for social justice looking to save the “99 percent” people as their ship seemed headed to sink. The overt reference to his Judaism had him talking impishly, with his trademark heavy Brooklyn accent, about how his family’s name was changed from “Sanderswitzky” to make it seem less Jewish.
Just a few days later Sanders became the first Jew to win a presidential primary in the history of the United States. Whether or not Sanders is successful in his quest for the White House, or whether people support his candidacy, that victory is cause for celebration as a stubborn barrier of religious and cultural bigotry falls away. It is another milestone down the road to an open society, and a dramatic sign of how many ways there are to be a Jew in the world today, including in the public arena.
Even so, there’s been little dancing in the streets, or down synagogue aisles, about Sanders’ achievement. Many Jews have debated “how Jewish” Sanders is, and more than a few have questioned what he’s said and done about religion.
Part of Sanders’ success is that he’s more Jewish than some people think and it hasn’t stopped him from being accepted by a broader population.
Sanders went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, celebrated Passover, and lived on a kibbutz in Israel. He led the Chanukah blessings at Chabad’s public menorah in Burlington, Vt. He talked of the Holocaust’s toll, with people killed in the family of his father, who emigrated from Poland. He engaged in correspondence with the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and proclaimed “Education Day” in his honor in Burlington. He once celebrated his re-election as mayor by going to a Purim party.
Sanders doesn’t come across as a synagogue Jew — he doesn’t belong to one. Or a cultural Jew — he hasn’t been known to wax poetic about traditional Jewish food or music. It’s easier to locate him on the scale of Jewish social justice, and a group like Bend the Arc seems well aligned with Sanders’ priorities. His Judaism is a more socialist, universalist type. Sanders doesn’t refer to repairing the world as tikkun olam, or use other Hebrew phrases, but doing good for the world seems to be among his highest priorities, which resonates with many Jews and others.
Has Sanders always acted Jewishly in the way that all Jews might like? Certainly not, but that would be an impossible task for anyone and doesn’t seem a fair test for presidential candidates.
The fact that Sanders’ Judaism has been relatively undiscussed in the campaign is progress. It is a sharp contrast to the many years of disparaging questioning of a candidate’s fitness because he or she might be taking orders from a divine authority. The Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy was dogged by doubts raised about his faith, with people suggesting he would take instructions from Rome. It happened again in 2012 when Mitt Romney, the first Mormon major party nominee, faced criticism because of his faith. Jews have long been derogatorily cited for “dual loyalty” to Israel.
The fact that Sanders’ Judaism seems a non-issue for voters is a sign of greater diversity and acceptance in American society. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 80 percent of Americans say a candidate being Jewish wouldn’t matter in their vote one way or the other. The remaining 20 percent are evenly split between saying a Jewish candidate would be either more likely or less likely to get their vote.
Sanders almost never brings up his Judaism, but occasionally answers questions about it. At a town hall in Derry, N.H., CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about his Judaism and faith.
“It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely, it is,” said Sanders. “Everybody practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”
In his New Hampshire victory speech, Sanders said near the end: “The truth is that neither one of my parents could ever have dreamed that I would be here tonight standing before you as a candidate for president of the United States. This is the promise of America, and this is the promise we must keep alive for future generations.”
His parents would be kvelling.
Noel Rubinton, a writer and communications consultant based in Providence, R.I., has been covering the presidential campaign.