But for a reason that has barely surfaced so far, a Sanders nomination and victory would be YUGER. While we’ve long had Jews in Congress and on the Supreme Court, Sanders would be the first major-party nominee, let alone president. Indeed, a Jew winning a primary, as Sanders did in New Hampshire, was itself a first.
Sanders wouldn’t, though, be the first Jew on the Democratic national ticket. Joseph Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 and even mentioned as a running mate for Republican John McCain eight years later. Awareness of his Jewishness was high because, a religious man, he stayed off the campaign trail from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday to observe the Sabbath.
The media have only given a nod to Sanders’ roots, mostly after he called attention to it himself in a skit with Larry David on “Saturday Night Live,” when they played immigrants on a boat from Europe to the United States:
Sanders, looking very much the Eastern European Jew in a newsboy’s cap and shabby corduroy jacket, tells David his name is Sanderswitski, but he is “going to change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound so Jewish.”
Replies David: “That’ll trick ‘em.”
Research yields no information on what Sanders’ family name was when his Polish father emigrated to the United States.
Nor does it tell us if his Eastern European roots influenced his politics, but, based on my own family, it would not surprise me. My grandfather, who came from Poland in the early 20th century, was a Jewish socialist. He raised three capitalists, but his working-class outlook continues to influence his descendants, and I’ll bet the same is true of Sanders.
Sanders, unlike Lieberman, doesn’t wear his Jewishness on his sleeve, but nor does he try to hide it. He spent time on an Israeli kibbutz , or commune, after he graduated from the University of Chicago. (On Israel, Sanders favors a two-state solution, in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.) Like a lot of American Jews, he may not get to a synagogue, but he is said to be proud of his heritage and would hardly deny being a Jew.
The interesting question is why little is being made of his religion. When Lieberman was chosen, Time magazine’s cover screamed “Chutzpah.” Today it would shrug, “Eh.”
Rabbi Amy Bigman, of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing, thinks Lieberman’s breakthrough may be the cause, “so Senator Sanders’ Judaism is not seen as a ‘first.’ Also, Lieberman was a practicing Jew, but I don’t know that Sanders is.”
Indeed, Sanders’ apparent secularism couldn’t have been clearer than during the Jewish high holy days, which run from Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). During those 10 days, Sanders spoke at Liberty University, the Christian school founded by bible thumper Jerry Falwell.
While Sanders doesn’t hide his heritage, he hardly calls attention to it either. Asked at the University of Wisconsin debate last week if he worried about thwarting the history-making opportunity to elect the first female president, he said:
“Well, you know, I think, from a historical point of view, somebody with my background, somebody with my views, somebody who has spent his entire life taking on the big money interests, I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment, as well.”
Maybe, just maybe, his “background” was a nod to his Jewish heritage, but if so it was certainly oblique.
Even Jews aren’t crowing about the possibility of sending the first Jew to the White House. Some of that could be political realism — Sanders is after all a long shot. Moreover, older Jews may fear an anti-Semitic backlash if they call attention to it, while younger Jews, who haven’t suffered discrimination, may wonder what’s the big deal.
Of course, if Sanders continues to win (my lips to God’s ears), more interest may be paid to it. It’s hard to imagine that right-wing Christians who think the Jews killed Christ won’t make an issue of it.
For me, it’s all been very refreshing to have a candidate who is just being himself, who doesn’t invoke God at every turn or otherwise pander to the religious vote — but who doesn’t mind poking fun at himself, as he did on “Saturday Night Live.” What could be more Jewish than humor, after all.
And if we can nominate and even elect a 74-year-old Jew from Brooklyn who still sounds like he is from Brooklyn, I say, “Only in America.”