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As my son and I watched coverage of Super Tuesday, I mentioned that regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders got the Democratic nomination or won any states on this big voting day, he made history as the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary. As the results rolled in, I amended my comment, “He’s the first Jewish presidential candidate to win more than one primary. That’s cool.”
My 11-year-old responded in a sarcastic voice, â€śOf course, no one knows Bernie is Jewish.â€ť
I was surprised by my sonâ€™s remark. In his younger, pre-tween days, he would have thought that a serious presidential contender who was Jewish was â€śawesomeâ€ť and would probably have been pro-Bernie just because he was Jewish.
Now, on the cusp of teen-hood, he was more discerning and shrewd and often offered sharp analysis of situations and eventsâ€“all good things. But his comment made me wonder if he was bothered by the fact that Sanders didnâ€™t wear his Jewishness on his sleeve.
â€śDoes it bother you that Bernie doesnâ€™t talk about his Jewish identity more?â€ť I asked.
â€śNo,â€ť my son said.
I wasnâ€™t convinced. â€śDo you think that because he doesnâ€™t talk about being Jewish on the campaign trail that his Jewish identity isnâ€™t important to him?â€ť I probed.
â€śNo. Iâ€™m proud to be Jewish, but I donâ€™t talk about being Jewish all the time at school. But still, everyone knows Iâ€™m Jewish and if they have questions about Judaism or Jewish rituals they ask me.â€ť
â€śOk, well, maybe Bernie feels the same way,â€ť I suggested. â€śMy guess is that he is proud to be Jewish and would acknowledge heâ€™s Jewish if asked, but feels he doesnâ€™t need to talk about his Jewishness all the time. My sense is that he wants to talk about the issues facing our country and not about his faith or religious identity.â€ť
My son didnâ€™t respond. As I watched him think about what I said, I felt that while he agreed with it, there was something that bothered him about Sandersâ€™ minimal display of his religious identity, but he couldnâ€™t put into words what rubbed him.
It is likely that there are other Jews who, like my son, want Sanders to identify more strongly as a Jewish American. And there are probably many, who like me, are OK with Senator Sandersâ€™ seeming choice to identify as an American Jew.
It was 56 years ago that a Democratic presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy asked the nation to see him as an American Catholic, not a Catholic American. In September 1960, at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was high, Kennedy delivered a major speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston on the issue of his religion. An excerpt follows. You can read the full transcript here.
â€śWhile the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influenceâ€¦the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues â€” for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers. But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscuredâ€¦So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in â€” for that should be important only to me â€” but what kind of America I believe inâ€¦I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that officeâ€¦But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholicâ€¦â€ť
For me, the fact that Bernieâ€™s religious identity is a non-issue is as historic as his primary wins. Unlike Kennedy, Bernie can talk about the issues and not his religion. And that signals that even though there have been recent incidences of anti-Semitism and there are still country clubs and other organizations that excluded us, Jews have achieved the kind of acceptance that our ancestors who fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Russia and other areas of the world dreamed of.
After our conversation, I shared Kennedy’s speech with my son. After reading it, he said it gave the religious identity issue more context and he understood how it laid the groundwork for a candidate like Sanders. He said it didn’t bother him that Bernie didn’t speak about his Jewishness more often and he saw why it’s important to celebrate the success of this Democratic candidate for president, who also happens to be Jewish.