Monday, December 22nd, 2008
One of the silliest tendencies in Jewish journalism — and I’d bet this has been going on since American Jewish papers were first published in the 1800s — has been to write about any celebrity with some Jewish blood as a Jewish celebrity, even if that celebrity is not Jewish according to Jewish law or practice, and knows almost nothing Judaism (nor should that celebrity be expected to).
Surely someone in American Jewish journalism can’t wait to tell you that David Gregory, the new host of NBC’s “Meet The Press” is Jewish, because Gregory’s father was Jewish, even though Gregory wasn’t raised Jewish, his mother isn’t Jewish and his wife isn’t Jewish. And yet, the story isn’t so simple because his story isn’t over. He’s studying Judaism now and says Shema with his child at night.
It’s an intriguing religious question, the influence of a father on a son beyond the boundaries of what we think of as normative religious affiliation, as Gregory is not a Jew but is sandwiched between a Jewish father and a child saying Shema. Political damage aside, the current turmoil in mixed marriages and the influence of a parent’s religion on a child who is technically not of that same religion is one of the reasons there was such interest in the idea of Barack Obama having a Christian mother who raised him Christian despite a Muslim father and step-father, along with a brief enrollment in an Indonesian Islamic-oriented public school. Unfortunately, the political implications were too inflammatory for Jewish, Christian and Islamic publications to explore Obama’s situation from a religious and spiritual perspective rather than from a political one. It was one of the most interesting religious stories of 2008.
There was an interesting precedent for Obama and his father in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. Goldwater had a Jewish father, a fact that attracted the unpleasant attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which anti-Catholic as well as anti-black and anti-Semitic. Despite the election of Kennedy, a Catholic, in 1960, the United States was more anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, even in some respectable circles, than it is today.
Not only did the Republicans nominate a half-Jew but his running-mate, William Miller, was Catholic. Miller, the most unknown vice presidential candidate in recent history before Sarah Palin, was thought to be Jewish by some (he had Jews wondering, as well) because he had one of the few surnames in the history of national candidates that was also widely shared by Jews, there being Jewish Millers but nary a Taft, Jefferson or McKinley.
And yet when Miller (a New York congressman and chair of the Republican National Committee) attacked the Klan for attacking Goldwater, some Jews attacked Miller.
Despite being accused of some historians of pandering to the segregationist vote, Miller was highly defiant of the KKK, saying, “I am not interested in the posture of the KKKK. They are supposed to be anti-colored, anti-religious, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. Well, Sen. Goldwater is half-Jewish and I am wholly Catholic.”
On Aug. 8, 1964, The New York Times reported that a public letter of protest was sent to Miller not by the Klan but by the American Council for Judaism.
The Council for Judaism wrote that they did not question Miller’s good intentions but his use of the term “half-Jewish” which implied, they said, ”a racial identification of the Jew which was used with diasastrous results by the Nazis and which has been repudiated by reputable scholars everywhere.”
In that most charming, over-the-top Jewish way, poor Miller was compared to the Nazis for attacking the Klan!
The American Council of Judaism went on to say, “While it is true that one of Sen. Goldwater’s parents was of the Jewish faith, the senator elected the Christian faith; the integrity of that election should not be questioned.”
Of course, Goldwater’s “election” of Christianity was somewhat more successful than his presidential one.
There was actually a joke going around in 1964, “I always knew the first Jewish president would be Episcopalian.”
In fact, Goldwater was not Jewish at all, anymore than Obama is a Muslim, anymore than Gregory is Jewish or any of the the other “half-Jewish” celebrities in Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song. Despite their fathers, despite their respect for their heritage, without conversion they are what they choose to be, just as each religion has the right to define what it chooses to be by defining what one has to do to be within that religion — be it a bris or a baptism. Goldwater decided. Gregory is deciding.
“The integrity of that election,” and Judaism’s integrity, for that matter, “should not be questioned.”