Registering minority voters, campaigning for stricter environmental laws, performing agit-prop theater against economic inequality — much of my free time in graduate school in New York in the 1990s was spent working with activist Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). When I moved to Central Pennsylvania a decade and a half ago, I assumed that the Jewish community here would be similar, in its political orientation, to the one that I had left behind on the Upper West Side.
To my dismay, a large proportion of the Jews here turned out to be Republicans. Democratic strategist James Carville has compared Central Pennsylvania to Alabama in its political leanings; others call this mountainous Appalachian part of the state simply “Pennsyltucky.” Jews have largely adopted the values of this region, in which the public schools are closed on the opening day of hunting season.
Then again, it seems that Jewish liberals are endangered even in New York. Even Bill de Blasio, the progressive candidate who won the mayoral race by a large margin, only got a lukewarm response from Jews. And in last Sunday’s New York Times, Anthony Lerman announced the end of liberal Zionism in the diaspora, as the dream of a two-state solution has faded.
The Orthodox segment of the Jewish community is rapidly increasing, along with a concomitant rightward tilt in both domestic and foreign policy. The old joke that a Jew earns like an Episcopalian but votes like a Puerto Rican has little currency any more. Norman Podhoretz’s 2009 book “Why Are Jews Liberals?” in which the pre-eminent Jewish neocon sneers that liberalism has “superseded socialism as the religion of most American Jews,” seems like a throwback to the 1960s.
Where have all the Jewish liberals gone? Long after the decline of socialism, the liberal Jew was still a staple of American popular culture. Think of Reuben, the Jewish union organizer, played by Ron Leibman, in the 1979 film “Norma Rae.” Or Dave, the guilty Jewish parvenu, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in the 1986 film, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Or Louis, the gay neurotic Jew, played originally by Joe Mantello, in Tony Kushner’s 1993 epic play “Angels in America.” Or the crusading Jewish investigator Dick Goodwin, played by Rob Morrow, in the 1994 film, “Quiz Show.”
Nor were Jewish liberal characters necessarily male. When Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, meets his future first wife, Allison, played by Carol Kane, in the 1977 film, “Annie Hall,” the stereotypes roll off his tongue: “You’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps, father with the Ben Shahn drawings…”
Lisa Brenner, an expert on political theater who teaches at Drew University in Madison, N.J., told me that these stereotypes are waning fast. She dates the shift to the early 2000s, with the Broadway production of “Def Poetry Jam,” which celebrated Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, and African-Caribbeans — but neglected to include Jews. “Jews were no longer members of the multicultural ensemble,” she noted. Nowadays, if they are visible at all on stage, she said, Jewish liberals tend to be portrayed negatively. She cited the 2010 Broadway musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” in which the defendants’ Jewish lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, was played by an African-American actor, Forrest McClendon, who sang about exploiting his African-American maid, cook and chauffeur.
But I still take pride in being a Jewish liberal. A friend from my synagogue, Jonathan Brandow, author of the new book “The Just Market: Torah’s Response to the Crisis of the Modern Economy,” and I have launched a new political organization, Progressive Jewish Voice of Central Pennsylvania. (Another friend who is active in politics instructed us to ban the word “liberal” from our vocabulary in reaching out to the local Jewish community.) Using a shofar as part of our logo, we are using the upcoming High Holy Days and the idea of a “wake-up call” as an opportunity to recruit new members to our group, and to our initial campaign, which is for a higher minimum wage.
The Times reported in mid-August that “red” states, especially in the South, are seeing dramatic in-migration from the “blue” states in the Northeast and on the West Coast. So, as the election season gets underway, some new (blue) blood may be on its way. Perhaps Central Pennsylania will turn a little more purple, showing that there’s still some life in the old Jewish liberal left.
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Jewish studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He writes about theater for the paper.