The New York Times probes (sort of) the heart of Bernie Sanders, a 'non-Jewish Jew'

Once again, it's time to talk about the media coverage of Bernie Sanders and his now you see it, now you don't approach to Judaism. The New York Times headline is pretty predictable: "Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It."

This new piece addresses all kinds of issues and answers a few questions that mainstream journalists missed in the past -- which kibbutz did he live in as a young man (a socialist one), what are his views on hot-button issues linked to Israel (he's with the Israeli left, seeking a two-state solution that backs Israel’s right to exist as well as a Palestinian homeland).

Nevertheless, as I read this piece I kept thinking about Jimmy Carter and the media storm in 1976 when the elite American press was forced to wrestle with the term "born again Christian." That's ordinary language in the Sunbelt and Middle America, but part of an unknown tongue in major chunks of the media-rich urban Northeast.

I understand that many journalists in New York City needed time to grasp the basics of evangelical Christianity. Hey, 40 years later lots of elite journalists are still wrestling with that.

However, is it really big news at The New York Times that there are million of people of Jewish heritage whose identity centers more on matters of culture than on the practice of the Jewish faith? I found it strange that this A1 Times piece basically let rabbis explain Sanders to America. Where are the quotes from articulate Jewish atheists and agnostics? Other than insights from his brother, Larry Sanders, where are the voices of the secular Jews?

Bernie Sanders is pretty normal, statistically speaking. He appears to be a secular, cultural Jew (not that there's anything wrong with that). I mean, let's look again at that summary material from that 2013 Pew Research Center report, "Jewish essentials: For most American Jews, ancestry and culture matter more than religion":

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.

Like I said, this new Times piece does add lots of fine details to the public portrait of Sanders. It started in a perfectly logical place, with a strong, strong anecdote from the heat of the current race for the White House.

When Senator Bernie Sanders thanked supporters for his landslide victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, he wistfully reminisced about his upbringing as “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money.”
While the crowd cheered, Rabbi Michael Paley of New York was among many Jews watching the speech who were taken aback. He said he was surprised that the Vermont senator had not explicitly described his father as a “Polish Jewish immigrant,” a significant distinction given Poland’s checkered history with its Jewish population.
“Nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole,” Rabbi Paley said.

The story also, in its summary material, does a good job of describing the niche within Judaism that Sanders calls home. This is the crucial section of the story and note the final frame of reference here (as in Joseph I. Lieberman):

Mr. Sanders, those who know him say, exemplifies a distinct strain of Jewish identity, a secular offshoot at least 150 years old whose adherents in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the jostling streets of the Lower East Side were socialists, anarchists, radicals and union organizers focused less on observance than on economic justice and repairing a broken world. ...
Rabbi Paley, who worked with Jews in central Vermont when he was a Dartmouth College chaplain, recalled once talking with Mr. Sanders about “non-Jewish Jews,” a term coined by a leftist biographer, Isaac Deutscher, to describe those who express Jewish values through their “solidarity with the persecuted.” Mr. Sanders seemed to acknowledge that the term described him, Rabbi Paley said.
But the secular image that Mr. Sanders casts is also complicating the way American Jews regard the historic nature of his candidacy.
When Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who spurned campaigning on the Sabbath, was Al Gore’s vice-presidential running mate in 2000, many Jewish voters saw it as a breakthrough. While Mr. Sanders’s surprising run for even higher office is eliciting many strong emotions, religious pride is usually not the main one.
“Joe was an observant Jew; Bernie is marginal,” said Morris Harary, a lawyer who lives near Mr. Sanders’s childhood home in Brooklyn.

And there's the heart of the matter.

Now, turn this around. Would it be safe to say that the Sanders candidacy is a very big deal to secular, cultural Jews? To his own people in that very large and very influential wing of modern Judaism?

This story does a great job of saying allowing rabbis and other practicing Jews to place Sanders in the wider context of Judaism. What is missing, once again, are solid, representative voices from the world of cultural Judaism explaining why they believe what they believe and why they don't believe, and practice, what they don't believe, and practice.

Like it or not, this discussion needed to include more information on the God question, at a level beyond the kind of Matrix or Star Wars level of late-night talk show discourse. As the Times piece notes of the candidate's parents and family:

“They were very pleased to be Jews, but didn’t have a strong belief in God,” Larry Sanders said.

This is especially important since the massive reality -- yes, we're talking about theodicy -- of the Holocaust looms over the childhood of Bernie Sanders. After all, the Nazis killed 90 percent of Poland's massive and highly influential Jewish community. Many Poles fought to protect the Jews (think of the young man who would become St. Pope John Paul II), but many others did nothing, or worse.

So Bernie knows some of the basic Jewish prayers in Hebrew, but:

As important to Mr. Sanders’s outlook was the Holocaust’s impact on his family. Three of his father’s siblings -- two brothers and a sister -- were slaughtered by the Germans, and other relatives perished.
In 2013, the Sanders brothers traveled to their father’s hometown, Slopnice, a rural village 50 miles southeast of Krakow, a visit tinged with nostalgia as well as sadness. ...
Mr. Sanders was forever mindful, as he once said, that the appointment of Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in 1933 “ended up killing 50 million people around the world,” six million of them Jews.
“Bernie learned that politics is a very serious matter,” Larry Sanders said.

Now, might it have been possible for this story -- using the voices of secular Jews -- to explain how all of this relates to the Jewish debates about God and the beliefs at the heart of traditional forms of the Jewish faith? Where is the balance? Where are the voices of the Jewish agnostics and atheists?

After all, it can be argued that secular and cultural Judaism is the most influential form of Judaism at the highest levels of American culture. I thought that journalists in the newsroom at The New York Times could have dug a bit deeper to explain that to their readers. The "non-Jewish" Judaism of Bernie Sanders may be old news, but it remains an important reality in the news.

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