THE AMBIVALENT AMERICAN JEW
ROSH HASHANAH 5777
RABBI BARRY L. SCHWARTZ
On this first day of the New Year, I’d like to tell you who to vote for.
Only kidding! I wouldn’t do that. I would be in hot water with quite a few congregants, never mind the IRS.
But I would like to look back at one candidate who is no longer in the race, but who caused quite a stir. No, not Ted Cruz. Yes, you guessed it⎯Bernie Sanders.
My interest in talking about Bernie Sanders on the High Holidays is not about his political platform but his Jewish identity. What he revealed about it during the campaign was minimal, but fascinating. It is a provocative case study that speaks to all of us, which is why I think it is worthy of comment… on this High Holiday and before history moves on to a new president.
On the night of his resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary Bernie Sanders became the first Jew to ever win a presidential nominating contest in American history. Sanders, who is known to avoid all personal references, got uncharacteristically personal in his victory speech. “I am the son of a Polish immigrant,” he told his frenzied crowd. That lit up the Jewish social media. “Polish?” posted quite a few writers.
The very fact of the brouhaha is revealing. On one level, Sanders was factually correct. His father was Polish. My paternal grandfather left Poland the same year as Eli Sanders. But did my grandfather consider himself a Polish immigrant? Maybe… but by his own account he was first and foremost a Jewish immigrant. Like Sanders, my grandfather’s family who remained in Poland all perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather reminded me of that.
But note that at this pivotal moment in Bernie’s life, and throughout the campaign, Bernie chose not to speak publicly about his being Jewish.
As journalist Gal Beckerman jokingly observed:
At one level, of course, it would be a redundancy of sorts for Mr. Sanders to assert that he is a Jew. What else could Bernie be? Every time I hear his voice, I am returned to Passover Seders where I’ve often been cornered by one of my uncles pointing a finger at my chest and yelling about something very important I must listen to right now.
Beckerman goes on to note in a more serious vein that,
the breakthrough aspect of his [Jewish] candidacy has been met with silence… [and] this silence has do with Mr. Sanders and the kind of American Jew that he represents⎯one who privileges the universal over the particular, society over tribe.
That’s a very nice way of putting it. But allow me to rephrase, in a slightly more provocative way. I do so in order to establish a thesis for this sermon. Bernie Sanders remained silent about his Jewish identity not because he denies it, not because he is ashamed of it, but because he is ambivalent about it.
Bernie Sanders is the ambivalent American Jew.
And in that regard Bernie Sanders is not alone.
Contrast Sander’s silence with that of another man who made the news in the spring, Merrick Garland. When Garland was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court I happened to catch his brief remarks at the White House. You may have missed it, but it was live from the Rose Garden. Garland began by thanking the President and then his wife, and then Garland said:
My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here. My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of western Russian and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism, and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.
Most Americans did not know that Garland was Jewish⎯I didn’t. Garland knew this. And he took the climactic moment of his life, on national TV with the President of the United States by his side, to acknowledge it⎯to affirm it. He didn’t have to. It would have been easier not to. But Merrick Garland chose to express that his Jewish identity is an inseparable part of who he is. He was saying that his Jewish family shaped his life. Not exclusively, but essentially.
To be fair, Bernie Sanders did speak about his Jewish identity once during the campaign. CNN host Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about his Jewishness during a Town Hall meeting. Sanders replied that,
My spirituality is that we are all in this together and when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my strong spiritual feeling.
Cooper nodded but then asked Sanders whether he was intentionally keeping his Judaism under wraps. “No,” answered Sanders: “I am very proud to be Jewish.” Sanders added how his father’s family had been wiped out in the Holocaust, and how as a child he remembered seeing neighbors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. He concluded that being Jewish “is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
So am I being too hard on Bernie? Well, let’s delve into this. Bernie did say something positive about his Jewish identity… but only when pressed about it. Quite honestly, he looked uncomfortable to me when he said it. He did not say it convincingly, with his usual passion, but almost apologetically. And what he said in his few words was also telling. Sanders spoke about his Jewishness in strictly ethnic terms, in connection to the Holocaust.
The esteemed conservative columnist Charles Krauthhammer wrote an entire article on Sander’s response:
What a strange reply⎯yet it doesn’t seem so to us because it has become increasingly common for American Jews to locate their identity in the Holocaust.
The Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.... We must of course remain dedicated to keeping alive the memory and the truth of the Holocaust, particularly when they are under assault from so many quarters....
Nonetheless, there must be balance. It would be a tragedy for American Jews to make the Holocaust the principle legacy bequeathed to their children. After all, the Jewish people are living through a miraculous age: the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, the revival of Hebrew... [and] the flowering of a new Hebraic culture radiating throughout the Jewish world.
Memory is sacred, but victimhood cannot be the foundation stone of Jewish identity.
Krauthhammer argues, and I certainly agree, that Sanders missed an opportunity to connect his passion for social justice with his Jewish identity. “I was sure his answer would be some variation of tikkun [olam (repairing the world)]”, he wrote. “On the stump, he plays the Old Testament prophet railing against the powerful and denouncing their treatment of the widow and the orphan.” Maybe Sanders was alluding to this when he talked about his social justice spirituality, but he never made the connection explicit.
Being Jewish is ethnic. Peoplehood is a key part of who we are. Being Jewish is ethical. After all, the Bible itself says that we are called to be a light to the nations, a moral exemplar. For me, prophetic Judaism and its mandate, Justice, justice shall you pursue is our highest calling.
I have no quarrel with Sanders's link to the Holocaust. I have nothing but respect for Sanders commitment to social justice. I even largely accept his criticism of Israel, although I wish he had balanced his critique during the campaign with some words of warmth toward the Jewish state. For a Jewish politician, who himself had spent time on a kibbutz, one would of thought this would be, as they say, a no-brainer.
But I think Bernie’s ambivalence got in the way of his public support for Israel in the same way that it got in the way of his public acknowledgement of the Jewish roots of his social activism. And I think Bernie’s ambivalence has gotten in the way of any meaningful connection to the American Jewish community.
Does it matter that Sanders was not in synagogue last Rosh Hashanah? After all, when Sandy Koufax sat out the World Series, contrary to rumor he did not go to synagogue. But he sat out the game he was due to start as the Dodger’s ace, and that was huge. Bernie did not sit out a day on the campaign trail. He gave a speech, at Liberty University, no less, a Christian school. That hurts.
The major study of Jewish identity by the Pew Research Center that made waves two years ago showed that most American Jews are proud of their identity. That’s good news.
When asked what it means to be Jewish, the single largest response, by far (more than 2/3) was leading an ethical life. That’s good news too, and the world will be a better place for it.
But only 19 percent said that observing Jewish law was important. That’s not good news. Not even half belong to a synagogue. That’s not good news. An alarming number of interfaith families are not raising their children as Jews. That’s not good news. A third of millennials say they are Jewish, but have no religion. That’s not good news.
Obviously I’m speaking as a rabbi, but wherever you put yourself on the Jewish spectrum, ask yourself honestly:
Is ethnic identity enough? Is ethical identity enough? What about faith? What about ritual? Can you really be Jewish without religion? Will you stay Jewish without religion? What about the Judaism in Jewishness?
It distressed me to learn, from someone who has been very close to Bernie Sanders his entire adult life, that neither Bernie’s son nor his grandchildren were raised as Jews. I am enormously proud of Bernie Sanders and his contribution to America. I really mean that. But I am truly sad that the Jewish line that has run though the Sanders family is coming to an end with Bernie. Is that what his forebears in the Pale of Settlement had in mind? Is that what his Polish immigrant father had in mind? Is that what Bernie himself had in mind?
The ambivalent American Jew will become the disappearing American Jew in the next generation. Bernie Sanders as a Jewish American is a tale of triumph. Bernie Sanders as an American Jew is a tale of tragedy.
Which tale are we writing for ourselves and our children?
I believe that the ambivalent center will not hold. Either we are all in. Or we are all out. Either we embrace our birthright, or scorn it. Either we bequeath our heritage or squander it.
We need not be zealots or fanatics. We need not be Orthodox. We can be proud Reform Jews, who affirm our ethnic identity, our ethical identity and our religious identity. We can view God theistically, atheistically, or vote agnostic. But there is a basic level of Jewish observance that comes with the territory. There is a basic expression of Jewish life that says, I am a member of the tribe.
On this Rosh Hashanah, it is time to vote. Not for Hillary or Donald, Democrat or Republican. It is time to cast our ballot for Am Yisrael. And it’s time to say, Hineni. Here I am! Count me in!
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