Three Jews Try to Care About Bernie Sanders’ Jewish Heritage


ANNA: So. I guess we’re here today because Bernie Sanders is Jewish, and he’s the first Jew to win a primary, and he doesn’t like to talk about it. Do we… care? As Jews? As three Jews, typing in a chat box, do we care…?

ELLIE: I don’t really care all that much, which is odd, because I remember being weirdly amped up for a 14-year-old about Joe Lieberman’s bid. I guess I was doing a lot of youth group activities back then. I mean, I love that Bernie’s Jewish! But I think he is fairly representative of a big chunk of modern American Jewry in that he doesn’t really seem to give much of a shit at all about his religious beliefs.

JOANNA: Ummm, I care and I don’t care. I care because it’s cool to see someone that looks and sounds like my cultural grandpa (not my real grandpas because they have/had accents) at the forefront of American politics. But I also don’t care at all from a policy perspective. I feel like people who care about “doing right by Jews” are old AIPAC conservatives and I am pretty skeeved out by that.

But I was amped for Joe Lieberman, too. That was the thing we were supposed to be amped about. My dad would drive me by his synagogue in Georgetown and say “That’s Joe Lieberman’s synagogue.” I feel like dads in Burlington drive their kids by a deli and say, “That’s Bernie Sanders’ deli,” which is much cooler and better.

ELLIE: Bernie’s form of Judaism is very comforting and familiar to me, in that it mostly involves a stint on a Kibbutz in the ‘60s and heavily accented adjectives and probably like, pastrami. His faith seems to be made up of a general sense of anger about the world and maybe looking like a noob when he goes to Shabbat dinner at someone’s house and gets caught mouthing the wrong words to the blessing.

ANNA: Exactly. Unlike Lieberman, who is Orthodox and opposed the Iran deal, Sanders is clearly just culturally Jewish and decidedly not pro-the current Israeli government, which I certainly identify with and…uh…yeah. Does anyone know if there are still doughnuts from earlier?

ELLIE: And, that’s not to minimize the significance of a Jewish descendent of Polish Holocaust survivors potentially becoming the leader of the free world; Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years and are facing an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe. For a lot of young liberal Jews, though, the problems facing our own community (at least in the U.S.) pale in comparison to injustices elsewhere, and flapping our arms about the First Jewish President seems a little…you know? Is anyone else really hot right now? Why is the heat on so high?

JOANNA: Also, right, a conservative Twitter troll recently called me a JINO [Jew in name only] when I wrote an article about Ted Cruz maybe being anti-Semitic (it was a hilarious article). And that’s the kind of self-important, holier-than-thou Judaism that non-Jews like Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are into! Like, the fact that there are Jews that are more into Ted Cruz than an actual real-life Jew shows…something? My glasses are so foggy?

ELLIE: Yeah, you are so right, Joanna. I feel like we are living in a time when a lot of long-held identifiers are breaking down but [TK point I’ll fill this in later].

JOANNA: Totally about identifiers. I feel like we are all values voters and there isn’t necessarily a set of values that all Jews share because a lot of them live in NYC and saw the AIDS crisis and…hold on, I had something…

ELLIE: I think Bernie’s apparent religious ambivalence—and the fact that Democratic voters aren’t really concerned by it—makes a lot of sense in the current cultural climate because…?

ANNA: The thing about reform Jewry in general, and Bernie’s brand in particular, is an interest in social justice, combined with a distinct lack of religious dogma or a sense of the Jewish people as a particular…something. So that’s…what’s happening.

JOANNA: Yeah. Liberal communities are seeing quick de-secularization while the opposite is happening in middle America… Are there good snacks downstairs?

ELLIE: Yeah, it’s just Annie’s gummies though. As someone who has been to Israel several times—

JOANNA: Haha, I just thought of the word “vaJINO,” that’s what I am.

ELLIE: Does anyone have an iPhone charger?

JOANNA: Where is Anna?

And that concludes our chat, “Three Jews Try to Care About Bernie Sanders’ Jewish Heritage.”

Contact the authors at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected].

Dreidel image via Shutterstock, animation by staff male Bobby Finger, photo of Anna’s empty chair by Joanna Rothkopf

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