You Don't Have To Be ...
A Forward Editorial, February 7, 2003
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The press was having a field day this week with the disclosure by Senator John Kerry in a Boston Globe interview that he had recently learned his grandfather was Jewish. It seems Frederick Kerry, the senator's father's father, was born Fritz Kohn in Austria in 1873 but changed his name in 1902, converted to Catholicism, settled in Boston and--after marrying a woman who had also converted from Judaism to Catholicism--raised a Catholic family. Kerry claims that he has never pretended his origins were Irish, despite his name, but says his Jewish roots were only unearthed after he put a genealogical researcher on the case. His family never discussed his grandfather's roots, he said.
With his revelation Kerry became, as The Washington Post and assorted other news outlets gleefully noted, just the latest in a growing roster of Democratic presidential hopefuls lining up to kvell about their personal Jewish heritage. Just days earlier, the Post recalled, General Wesley Clark, former NATO commander in the Balkans and a Democratic long-shot, had shared with the Forward his late-in-life discovery of a Jewish grandfather, which he said may have strengthened his determination to stop a new genocide in Europe. Clark's vidui, in turn, followed a lengthy ani ma'amin by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, also in an interview with the Forward's E.J. Kessler, about his Jewish wife, his relationship with Israel and the role Judaism plays in their household. To all of which Joe Lieberman's campaign spokeswoman, Jano Cabrera, responded in a Post interview: "Oy vey! All this talk about who is Jewish and who isn't is absolutely meshuga."
It's hard to ignore the comic aspect of this Jewish genealogical gold-rush. No, you don't have to be Jewish to run for president, but as the comedy great Lou Jacobi might have said, it couldn't hurt.
Still, there's a serious side to the candidates' quest for Jewish roots. It's a reminder, once again, of how Jewish fortunes have changed in current-day America. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that being Jewish was generally considered an impediment to advancement in this nation's public life. Those who wanted to get ahead commonly changed their names to something more nondescript like, say, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall or Edward G. Robinson. Or, for that matter, Frederick Kerry.
Look how far we've come. A decade ago Jerry Seinfeld taught us that a Jew could reach the top in the entertainment world without changing his name or masking his identity. Two years ago Lieberman taught us that having a practicing Jew on a presidential ticket was not only plausible but downright popular. Now everyone wants a piece of the action. "Who is a Jew" is becoming the latest version of the television series "American Idol."
All this ought to serve as a tonic to those folks who've taken to looking at the world as a dark, forbidding void of antisemitic danger these days. Yes, there are still those who hate us, and in some ways their threats are more sobering than they've been in quite some time. But there are also those who admire us, in ways that we never imagined. That doesn't mean the world is ready to endorse every messianic yearning of the Israeli right, as some of us might wish. It does mean that when Jews make a reasonable case, there's a more-than-willing ear in some of the most important precincts on earth.
It's also worth recalling that Jewish-Christian interfaith marriage, supposedly the scourge of the last generation of Jewish assimilation, is actually something that's been with us for a long time, and probably in numbers far greater than we had guessed. And, as we're learning in this presidential season, the children and grandchildren of intermarriage aren't necessarily lost forever. In some cases they may turn out to be, like the biblical Joseph, long-lost brothers turning up in high places.