My personal definition of who is a Jew has nothing to do with observance, ideology, or strict rules about ancestry. For me, anyone who reacts to an embarrassing moment involving a public figure by saying “I hope that person isn’t Jewish” or “I wish that person wasn’t Jewish” is part of the extended family.
In 2000 Vice President Al Gore chose as his running mate Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman was a centrist Democrat well-known for working with Republicans and particularly note-worthy for a blistering rebuke of President Clinton given in the well of the Senate before the impeached president was censured for his immoral behavior. Lieberman was known for his outspoken moral rectitude and had partnered with the doctrinaire Catholic conservative William Bennet to present Silver Sewer awards to television programs and movies that they deemed especially filthy and exploitative. And, of course, Joe Lieberman was a Jew, the first Jew on a major ticket. A Jew who wore his Jewishness like a lapel pin proclaiming a special status in all situations.
When it came to Joe Lieberman’s proud identity and impressive public decision to skip campaigning on Saturdays, even many Jews who disagreed with his politics found themselves moved by the historic story unfolding. As a Rabbi I was right there with them and like most of my colleagues found myself talking often about the significance of “one of us” playing such a central role in the American political scene.
There was a moment though that broke the spell for me a bit. Because Lieberman and Al Gore’s wife Tipper had both at one time or another been vocal about the excessive sex and violence in Hollywood and other parts of the entertainment industry, the question arose as to how they would appeal to those very industries that so often are linked with liberal politics and the Democratic party. I remember Joe Lieberman on late night television asked this question directly. He said “We will noodge you, but we will never become censors.” I found myself reacting viscerally to the word noodge, a word deriving from yiddish meaning to pester or bother. The idea of engaging in dialogue was fine even if I was more of a fan of pushing boundaries than Lieberman was. But using this Jewishy word as a shorthand for a kind of unobtrusive, ultimately insignificant cluck of disapproval was not only feckless, it was not very Jewish. At least not Jewish in a way that made me proud to say “he’s one of us.”
That brings me to Bernie Sanders. Sanders of course is another Jewish Senator moving toward center stage as a putative front-runner for the Democratic Nomination for President in the 2020 elections. Not yet, but in a short period of time he could leapfrog Lieberman as the first Jew to lead a ticket and vie to be the only Jew and the only non-Christian to occupy the White House. In thinking about this possibility I find myself comparing the potential significance of this identity with the significance of Lieberman’s candidacy. In doing so though I am less interested in what it tells us about Bernie Sanders as a Jew as a person or as a candidate. This reflection doesn’t have anything to do with my own positions, political choices or how I feel anyone else in either party should make their own choices. What interests me is what this comparison tells us about Jewish peoplehood, about what we call Judaism, and about Jewishness itself.
First of all the obvious differences. Lieberman identified as Jew observant of Jewish law and practices, devoted to faith-based life, and strongly supportive of Israel as a special nation. Bernie Sanders would not be seen as any of those. He is not found in a synagogue, the belief he professes is essentially secular even if it includes the existence of G*d, and he has been a strong critic of Israel as a violator of human rights and a supporter of the cause of Palestine and those who advocate on behalf of that cause. These factors, mostly the latter have led many to not only dismiss his Jewishness but even label him an Anti-Semite as well as an Anti-Zionist, these having become in some circles synonymous anyway. Perhaps those critics look at him and say “I wish he weren’t Jewish” But Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness is not a throw away.
There are many Jews in political life, of course. Another candidate for the nomination is Michael Bloomberg. Michael Bennet who recently dropped out also has Jewish roots. Democrats prominent in the impeachment hearings like Adam Schiff and Chuck Schumer are Jewish as well as star witnesses like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Gordon Sondland. However, I can imagine the public life of every one of those leaders and personalities if they weren’t Jewish. But like Joe Lieberman with his blatant faith and observance, I cannot imagine a Bernie Sanders who was anything but a part of the people of Israel.
When asked recently about the question of his own Jewishness, Sanders gave a strong response. He began by saying that being Jewish impacts him “very profoundly.” He talked about being a kid seeing the numbers tattooed on the arms of Holocaust survivors and learning of the horrific recent history his people had endured in Europe especially on a trip to Poland, home to his ancestors and the site of immeasurable slaughter. He affirmed that he believed in G*d and pivoted directly to how that belief informs his own deeply held convictions that a person is deserving of being treated with respect, concern and compassion whether they are “black, white, Latino, gay, straight or Native American.” The list of communities came as naturally to him as did his relating of visit to the killing fields of Poland. He was not reaching for names of interest groups but filling out the necessary second part of his being a Jew. A driving responsibility for the well-being of every person.
This deep belief has fueled Sanders’ easily recognizable authenticity that makes him so effective as a candidate and has attracted what has now become a diverse following. His most notable surrogates, Linda Sarsour, Killer Mike, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all know that he is demographically unlike them in identity and experience. He doesn’t try to speak in a particularly youthful way or employ language that is most current in talking about complex issues of identity. And there are some who hold this against him in terms of deciding whether his brand of class conscious liberalism is in sync with more identity focused approaches to justice. In practice though the connection with his followers seems to come from having common cause and being inspired to see different possibilities.
Bernie Sanders is more quiet than Joe Lieberman about being Jewish, but anything but quiet in expressing the passionate values that arise from his Jewishness. As Lieberman’s campaign and career continued I found more and more that the ways he invoked his Jewishness made me uncomfortable despite my own observance and public identification with faith. This contest will play out the next one as well with the stakes too high to take any aspect of the race lightly. No one knows what the future will bring. Yet it is hard for me to imagine that Sanders would be anything but Jewish or that I would ever say to myself “I wish he wasn’t one of us.”