Long, long ago -- during my graduate-school time at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I took a readings course in what the faculty called post-Holocaust Jewish sociology and ethics. It was, needless to say, an interesting experience for a guy who grew up in Texas as the son of a Southern Baptist pastor.
During that course I learned, as one scribe put it, that the most "controversial issue in modern Judaism is God." Years later, in Denver, I learned that you can put "marriage" near the top of that list of hot-button issues -- "intermarriage" to be precise.
I also remember thinking that, in many ways, being Jewish in New York City was -- in a strange way -- rather like being a Baptist in Texas.
Say what? Well, there are so many Baptists in Texas that it's impossible to stick any one label on them. There are Baptists in Texas who are to the right of the Rev. Jerry Falwell (junior or senior) and there are Texas Baptists who are theologically to the left of the local Episcopalians.
This brings me to that very interesting Washington Post story that ran under the headline, "Why Bernie Sanders doesn’t participate in organized religion."
Growing up, Bernie Sanders followed the path of many young American Jews. He went to Hebrew school, was bar mitzvahed and traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz.
But as an adult, Sanders drifted away from Jewish customs. And as his bid for the White House gains momentum, he has the chance to make history. Not just as the first Jewish president -- but as one of the few modern presidents to present himself as not religious.
“I am not actively involved with organized religion,” Sanders said in a recent interview.
Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner.
“I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
So he is into "Star Wars" or "The Matrix"? No. What this means is that, statistically, he is a pretty normal Jew from New York City or from postmodern America, in general.
What fascinated me about this story was how little attention the Post team paid to the kind of Brooklyn Jew he once WAS, as opposed to what he is or is not today. Anyone who hangs around the religion beat for a while knows that people are often defined as much by what they no longer believe as by what they currently believe. Hold that thought.
But first, let it be noted that this story goes out of its way to establish that it's normal for people seeking the White House to be involved in some kind of organized religion and to tell voters what that means to them.
That isn't Bernie Sanders, needless to say. What surprised me is that the Post never showed readers that Sanders is perfectly normal, in the context of American Jewish life today. Here is the top of a major Pew Research Center report -- "Jewish essentials: For most American Jews, ancestry and culture matter more than religion" -- in 2013 that sums that up:
What does it mean to be Jewish? There are few more fundamental and difficult questions for Jews -- indeed, figuring out one’s place within Judaism’s 3,000+ years of tradition, 620 commandments (plus a library’s worth of commentary), worldwide diaspora and multiple religious movements is itself key to many Jews’ self-identity.
Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with fewer saying they attend religious services weekly, believe in God with absolute certainty, or that religion is very important in their lives. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that overall, about six-in-ten (62%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture, while just 15% say it’s mainly a matter of religion.
So there is nothing unusual about Sanders and his American experience, as the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Still, it would have added depth to know a few facts. Take, for example, the vague details at the top of the story.
So he was bar mitzvahed. In what kind of synagogue? So he "traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz." Which one, connected with which stream of Judaism -- religious or secular -- in Israel?
I asked our own Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin if I had missed any specifics in this rather vague piece. He replied, via email:
You're not missing anything because there is nothing in the piece to miss. ... In the piece is a link to Sanders kibbutz experience, which is all about how no one knows which kibbutz he volunteered at, and he seems not to be talking.
I don't think his Jewish background has ever been flushed out, though it sounds to me, and this is just my speculation, that like so many Brooklyn Jews of his and my era, his family wasn't affiliated officially with any movement. All cultural; even going to synagogue on Yom Kippur was just cultural.
I do know he ran cross country and track in high school, as did I. ... Those meets were held on Saturday so he sure wasn't Orthodox, if even in name only.
Ira is referring to this fascinating passage at the end of the story:
Perhaps most puzzling is Sanders’s reluctance to cement cultural connections with fellow Jews by sharing stories from his past -- among them which kibbutz he stayed on in the early 1960s.
In Israel, the Kibbutz Movement -- the umbrella organization for the 250 communal settlements -- launched a Facebook campaign to find out, featuring a Photoshopped picture of the presidential candidate wearing a symbolic Israeli “tembel” hat. After Naomi Zeveloff published an article in the Forward about the search, readers wrote in, wondering why Sanders wasn’t releasing the information:
“What’s the big deal?” they asked. “That’s my question as well,” Zeveloff said.
The story consistently circles around these kinds of Jewish specifics, offering vague detail where it would have required only a few extra words to add depth. Note the vague spots in this passage, for example:
Bernie Sanders, born in 1941, was raised only blocks from where his second wife, Jane O’Meara, later grew up, but it was culturally distant from her Catholic quarter.
“It wasn’t a question of ‘Are we Jewish?’ ” recalled his older brother, Larry Sanders. “It was just as uncontested as saying you’re an American.”
Almost seven years apart in age, the Sanders boys shared a bedroom in a modest but comfortable apartment. Passover Seders would rotate among neighbors. When their father went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, the boys would sometimes wait outside, listening to the World Series. Bernie Sanders’s bar mitzvah was “a big gathering,” Larry Sanders recalled, at which the adolescent looked younger than his 13 years.
Their Jewish education was “unsophisticated,” Larry Sanders said, grounded in a simple moral code of right and wrong.
“He could read a prayer in Hebrew,” Larry Sanders said, “but not with a great deal of understanding.”
Once again, let me stress that none of this is unusual. Sanders is a cultural Jew. His second marriage is to a woman raised as a Catholic (although there are no details offered there, either). He isn't anxious to talk about God, beyond a kind a general deism.
The only thing unusual about this is that he is running for president, in a land in which a rising number of people are comfortable voting for a vague believer or an unbeliever.
All well and good. But why leave the Jewish details so vague?