Once The New York Times is on it, it’s officially a trend: self-appointed representatives of the Jewish community wringing their hands about what kind of a Jew the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is.
Writing in the Times, Joseph Berger contrasts how, “When Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who spurned campaigning on the Sabbath, was Al Gore’s vice-presidential running mate in 2000, many Jewish voters saw it as a breakthrough. While Mr. Sanders’s surprising run for even higher office is eliciting many strong emotions, religious pride is usually not the main one.”
The editor of the Jewish Daily Forward went further, declaring that if Sanders wins, “he won’t be a Jewish president. He’ll be a president who happens to be Jewish.”
Is Mark Zuckerberg the Jewish CEO of Facebook, or is he a CEO who happens to be Jewish? Who cares! Win or lose, Sanders is already — like Zuckerberg — one of the most important Jews of the 21st century.
If you’re the kind of Jew who takes pride in the success of your co-religionists, rejoice! If not, don’t. But either way, what’s happening here speaks to much larger structural challenges within the American Jewish community. (And that’s what this piece is about, not who I’m voting for or who I think you should vote for.)
The worry about Sanders’s Jewishness is just the latest of many disconnects between those who would speak on behalf of “the Jews,” and the actual Jews. Bernie Sanders is far more representative of American Jewry than Joe Lieberman ever was — and that’s what’s so worrying to the Jewish communal establishment.
Like the overwhelming majority of American Jews, it appears Sanders does not believe in a God that needs to be prayed to through regular recitation of Jewish liturgy. Thus, you won’t find Sanders in synagogue very often. Sound familiar? It should, because if you’re a non-observant Jew, that description likely describes you and/or most of your friends and family members. It certainly describes me.
[In Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., Sanders was asked about his faith, and according to press reports, he said he was “very proud of being Jewish.” He added that it was “an essential part of who I am as a human being.”]
Sanders’ wife isn’t Jewish. It’s a biographical fact barely mentioned by Jewish media outlets. Are they being remarkably polite, or embarrassed? Intermarriage is another thing I have in common with Sanders, and that we both have in common with the majority of married households containing at least one Jew.
Former Forward editor Gal Beckerman’s Times op-ed captures the zeitgeist. “This silence has to do with Mr. Sanders and the kind of American Jew that he represents — one who privileges the universal over the particular, society over tribe.”
If the fear is that the Jewish community is going to look and behave differently in the future than it did in the past, let me confirm those fears: I guarantee that Jews are going to look and behave differently. My Jewish identity is substantially different than my grandparents’ Jewish identities. This is the case for most Jews. Why would we then expect our grandkids to have the same Jewish identities that we have? (Ironically, Bernie Sanders’ Bundist politics is a throwback to my grandparents’ Jewish identity. So if he’s starting a trend, maybe my kids’ Jewish identity will actually be closer to my grandparents’ than to mine.)
Some take the fear even further, suggesting that non-Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. is simply disappearing. This cottage industry of sky-is-falling alarmism within the organized Jewish community did not skip a beat when the Pew survey of American Jewry disproved their central tenet. For decades, they promised that the number of Jews was declining, and heaped blame on the intermarried for our demise. Then Pew found more Jews in America today than at any other time in history—and not just because of the high Orthodox birthrate but because so many of those “bad” intermarrying Jews were actually raising their kids with a Jewish identity.
Rather than admitting they were wrong, the naysayers doubled down by asking: well, what kind of Jews are they? The answer, clearly, is not our kind of Jews. The new tale of doom-and-gloom is that it’s not necessarily “the Jews” who are disappearing, just “the shrinking Jewish middle.” (And it goes without saying, the Jews in the middle are the best.)
Who wants to be a part of this judgmental mishegas? Fewer and fewer Jews, that’s who; and certainly less young Jews. A survey nobody’s conducted yet would likely show that most Jewish organizations led by people who subscribe to this narrative of misery and decline are, in fact, declining. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those organizations with an inclusive, expansive vision of Judaism — focused on providing meaning rather than proving Jewish bona fides — are the ones more likely to be growing.
If you put Bernie Sanders’ profile through all the usual Jewish sociological Likert scales, you come away empty. No synagogue membership, no Shabbat candles … not even the newer hip measures like starting his own indie minyan. Yet Sanders lives his Jewish identity through what even President Obama knows is called tikkun olam, repairing the world, and expresses his spirituality through what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “praying with my feet.” Just like so many other proud Jews I know.
When politicians wrap themselves in cloaks of hypocritical religiosity while behaving pointedly non-religious, we mock them. Yet here is, finally, a politician whose commitment to serving people is not questioned by either side of the political divide (even if split on his policies), who is unabashedly unaffiliated with organized religion yet proud to be Jewish — just like most Jews! — and our leaders can’t fully celebrate? Maybe, if these leaders are so disappointed in the people they think they lead, it’s time to step aside.
Paul Golin is associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism.