What kind of Jew is Bernie Sanders?
Well, for one thing: he’s not Joseph P. Lieberman.
Former Connecticut Senator Joseph P. Lieberman ran for the vice-presidency on the 2000 ticket with Al Gore. Joe Lieberman is an observant Jew who observes Jewish dietary laws and observes the Sabbath. He is unabashedly Jewish in everything that he does.
In fact, when Joe Lieberman ran for high office, there wasn’t even a blip of anti-Semitic response (true, also, for Bernie Sanders). We can imagine someone in the American heartland saying: “Well, I don’t know much about his religion, but he’s a good man, so his religion must be OK.”
Joe Lieberman was a historical first: the first Jew to ascend to the heights of national power, in any Western country, who did not have to deny his Judaism. (When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, the comedian Mort Sahl said: “I always knew that the first Jewish President would be Episcopalian.”)
Take the English statesman and prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. You know what happened to him on his thirteenth birthday? He wasn’t chanting the haftarah for his bar mitzvah.His father had him baptized.
Why? So he could enter the upper reaches of British society.
Disraeli became the Prime Minister of England. He was proud of his Jewish origins.
But, that is what they remained – origins.
Bernie Sanders is not Disraeli. He didn’t convert. And he’s not Joe Lieberman, either — not by a long shot.
Bernie Sanders observes no Jewish traditions. OK – that’s forgivable. We’ve had a few presidents who were not exactly members of the “I Love God” club.
But, here’s what gets me.
Judaism is not only about belief. It is also about belonging. You have to be part of the community. You have to count.
And, when it comes to his own local Jewish community — certainly, the synagogues of Burlington — Bernie doesn’t belong. As Rabbi Jim Glazier, the rabbi of that city’s Temple Sinai has said, that’s just not Bernie’s thing.
So, what is “Bernie-ism?”
Bernie Sanders is a product of his time and place. He is, in some way, the quintessential Brooklyn Jew who grew up in the 1950s, and who then moved to Great Neck, Scarsdale, Newton, Highland Park, and Beverly Hills.
Time to meet that Jew.
- The child of immigrant parents. They spoke Yiddish around the house. Most immigrant Jews did not come to these shores with anything remotely resembling traditional Jewish piety. In fact, the immigrant parents cared so little about Jewish piety that they…
- Went to synagogue, maybe a few times a year, and they…
- Gave their child some kind of rudimentary religious education. Probably an old guy with a beard and an accent who didn’t particularly love kids that much, but he had to make a living. All this so that the kid could…
- Have a bar mitzvah. He (and then, it was only “he”) would have delivered the “Today I am a man” speech. He would have gotten a fountain pen as a gift. And as a teenager or young adult, he might have…
- Spent time in Israel. On a (socialist) kibbutz. And…
- Hanukkah? Yes. Passover? Yes – a seder, with or without a full recitation of the Passover narrative. Now comes the interesting thing…
That Passover narrative, either sung around the Passover table or allowed to remain silent: perhaps it would have created within our mythical Jew a particular mentality:
- Pharaohs are bad.
- Enslavements — any and all — are rotten.
- Everyone should get out of their own Egypts.
- You have to make the world better.
So, that’s “Bernie-ism.”
Look quickly, because you won’t likely see that type of Jew again.
Because there’s nothing left to produce that kind of Jew. There is no more immigrant past. Ethnicity is dwindling. There is no more fervent and principled Jewish secularism; rather, we have this vague thing called “cultural Judaism.”
Bigger problem: fewer young people are learning about Judaism and Jewish history. That means that there is far less chance that Jewish history will create Jewish values.
And if fewer people are observing Jewish holidays, then we cannot expect that the values of those holidays will permeate their lives.
How “Jewish” is Bernie Sanders? Ultimately it shouldn’t matter — any more than how Christian, say, Marco Rubio is.
But, consider this: if Michael Bloomberg enters the presidential race, that will mean that two Jews will be running for president.
Isn’t America great? Two visible Jews running for president!
When Jimmy Kimmel interviewed Sanders, he asked the senator (it’s at 1:29) about his religious beliefs.
“I am who I am,” Sanders replied. “What I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together, that I think it is not a good thing to believe as human beings that we can turn our backs on other people.”
That second part: totally Jewish. It’s also, by the way, totally Christian. This begs the question: at what point does universalism become so vague that it becomes a religious (or secular) sentiment that any good person could affirm?
What about the first part of Bernie’s quote? “I am who I am”?
When God meets Moses, God says: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.
One translation of those words: “I am who I am.”
Perhaps Bernie Sanders is far more Jewish than he thinks.