National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - Joseph Berger The New York Times

When Sen. Berni e 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,” Pa­ley said.

Two days later, in a de­bate with Hil­lary Clin­ton, San­ders re­ferred to the his­toric can­di­dacy of “some­body with my back­ground” with­out overtly say­ing he was Jewish. That prompted the Jewish Tele­graphic Agency, a news ser­vice feed­ing the Jewish press world­wide, to ponder, as its head­line put it: “Peo­ple are con­fused why Bernie San­ders won’t own his Jewish­ness.”

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 Shtetlech of East­ern Europe and the jostling streets of the Lower East Side in Man­hat­tan were so­cial­ists, an­ar­chists, rad­i­cals and union or­ga­niz­ers fo­cused less on ob­ser­vance than on eco­nomic jus­tice and re­pair­ing a bro­ken world. In­deed, he seems more com­fort­able speak­ing about Pope Fran­cis, whose views on in­come in­equal­ity he ad­mires, than about his own religious be­liefs.

Pa­ley, who worked with Jews in cen­tral Ver­mont when he was a Dart­mouth Col­lege chap­lain, re­called once talk­ing with San­ders about “non- Jewish Jews,” a term coined by a Pol­ish bi­og­ra­pher, Isaac Deutscher, to de­scribe those who ex­press Jewish val­ues through their “sol­i­dar­ity with the per­se­cuted.” San­ders seemed to ac­knowl­edge that the term de­scribed him, Pa­ley said.

But the sec­u­lar im­age that San­ders casts is also com­pli­cat­ing the way Amer­i­can Jews re­gard the his­toric na­ture of his can­di­dacy.

When Joseph Lieber­man, an Ortho­dox Jew who spurned cam­paign­ing on the Sab­bath, was Al Gore’s vi­cepres­i­den­tial run­ning mate in 2000, many Jewish vot­ers saw it as a break­through. While San­ders’ 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 San­ders’ child­hood home in Brook­lyn. As a his­tory maker, he said, Lieber­man was “much more of a big deal.”

Grow­ing up in Mid­wood in Brook­lyn in the 1940s and ’ 50s, San­ders, who de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle, had a not atyp­i­cal Jewish up­bring­ing. His father, Eli, who sold paint to hard­ware stores, showed up at a syn­a­gogue vir­tu­ally only on Yom Kip­pur, said Bernie San­ders’ brother, Larry San­ders, in an in­ter­view from Eng­land, where he is the health is­sues spokesman for the Green Party.

Their mother, Dorothy, was the daugh­ter of a union ac­tivist who chafed at his own yeshiva school­ing. The fam­ily did not ob­serve much more than Passover sed­ers with neigh­bours.

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

Like many chil­dren of that era, Bernie San­ders, while at­tend­ing pub­lic schools, took Sun­day He­brew and Bi­ble classes at an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue, the Kingsway Jewish Cen­ter in the Mid­wood neigh­bour­hood, and was bar mitz­va­hed there.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Chicago, San­ders went to Is­rael to work on an agri­cul­tural kib­butz and ended up at Sha’ar Ha’amakim (Gate of the Val­leys) near Haifa. The mo­ti­va­tion seemed as much ide­o­log­i­cal — the col­lec­tive was af­fil­i­ated with the Hashomer Hatzair so­cial­ist move­ment — as Zion­is­tic.

As the mayor of Burling­ton, Vt., San­ders in 1983 was asked by Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin to per­mit the light­ing of a 2.4- me­tre- tall meno­rah on the steps of city hall. He not only agreed but lit the se­cond- night can­dles him­self. Raskin re­called that when he asked San­ders if he needed guid­ance, San­ders said, “I know the bless­ings,” and re­cited them in He­brew.

As im­por­tant to San­ders’ 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.

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.

To­day, San­ders does not reg­u­larly at­tend any syn­a­gogue in Wash­ing­ton or Ver­mont, though he does show up for such rituals as the yahrzeit — the an­niver­sary of a death — of the father of a close friend, Richard Su­gar­man, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont.

As a sen­a­tor, San­ders has sup­ported a two- state so­lu­tion guar­an­tee­ing Is­rael’s right to ex­ist as well as a Pales­tinian home­land, and col­leagues in Congress say his view tends to echo the Is­raeli left wing. When Ha­mas fired rock­ets from Gaza into Is­raeli towns, he con­demned the at­tacks, but he also crit­i­cized Is­rael for what he said was a dis­pro­por­tion­ate mil­i­tary re­sponse.

He sup­ported last year’s deal to end sanc­tions against Iran in ex­change for its dis­man­tling of the in­fra­struc­ture the United States be­lieved would give it the ca­pac­ity to make nu­clear bombs. Some Je wish mem­bers of Congress, no­tably Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, crit­i­cized the deal as not do­ing enough to stop Iran’s nu­clear de­vel­op­ment and thus putting Is­rael at risk.

In Oc­to­ber, San­ders was asked on Jimmy Kim­mel Live! whether he be­lieved in God.

“What my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this to­gether and it’s not a good thing to be­lieve that as hu­man be­ings we can turn our backs on the suf­fer­ing of other peo­ple,” he re­sponded. “This is not Ju­daism. This is what Pope Fran­cis is talk­ing about, that we can­not wor­ship just bil­lion­aires and the mak­ing of more money.”

Yet he play­fully ac­knowl edged his Jewish back­ground in a re­cent Satur­day Night Live sketch where he took the part of an ocean­cross­ing im­mi­grant named Bernie San­der­switzky. “We’re go­ing to change it when we get to Amer­ica so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish,” he told the host, Larry David, in his con­spic­u­ous Brook­lyn ac­cent.

“Yeah, that’ ll trick ’ em,” David replied.


Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie San­ders was raised in a Jewish house­hold,but prefers not to em­pha­size that fact, a com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor for Jewish vot­ers.


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