Judaism...race? religion? well Ask Senator George Allen of Virginia, who just found out he's jewish..partly.
For Sen. Allen, Questions of Much More Than Faith
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006; Page C01
Is Sen. George Allen a Jew? Can a man be a Jew if he doesn't want to be one? Is being Jewish a state of mind or a matter of blood?
Does it matter if Allen is a Jew, and if so, why? Or is the only thing that matters how he responds to the revelation? (In which case, why did he brag to the Richmond Times-Dispatch the other day about having eaten ham for lunch?)
Are the questions raised by the revelation that Allen's mother was Jewish so complicated as to require a Talmudic scholar to unravel them?
And is it true, by the way, that Jews like to answer questions with questions?
As Adam Sandler taught us years ago with his "Chanukah Song," there are a lot of famous somewhat-Jews in this country. Among Jews, this is something of a parlor game -- trying to figure out who is and who isn't. Recent election cycles have burst with news about the Jewish connections of prominent pols -- so much so, it seemed not a question of whether they'd find out they were part Jewish, but when . John Kerry, it turned out, had Jewish grandparents, Howard Dean is married to a Jew, Dennis Kucinich was dating a Jew, and Hillary Clinton had a Jewish stepgrandfather. Madeleine Albright (who wasn't running for anything) found out her parents were Jewish. Presidential would-be Wesley Clark spoke enough about having Jewish lineage that he was accused of pandering.
The editors of the Jewish newspaper the Forward say it was in this spirit that they wrote their story last month about Allen's mother having been born Jewish.
"Our original question was just gossip," says Forward Editor in Chief J.J. Goldberg. He interrupts himself: "Scarlett Johansson." Jewish? "I swear to God."
It's understandable why a newspaper with a sizable Jewish readership would care about Allen's Jewish heritage in the midst of his reelection race in Virginia (and given his rumored presidential aspirations), but why does the larger world care?
Let's try turning the question on its head. Why should anyone be offended upon being asked if he or she has Jewish ancestry? Does acting huffy in response to such a question (as Allen did when first asked, during a debate this week) imply that one believes there is something wrong with being Jewish?
Or did Allen think that the questi oner was implying that there was something wrong with being Jewish, since the questioner brought it up just after asking how he had learned the French slur "macaca," which some have suggested could have come from his mother, who was raised in French-speaking Tunisia, and who was, as it turns out, born Jewish . . . ?
The most fascinating element of this story -- what makes it even more than a heartbreaking family drama -- has been Allen's response. After getting mad during the debate and accusing his questioner of casting "aspersions," he issued a statement saying he took "great pride" in his Jewish heritage. But then he said in an interview: "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops."
Yesterday he was back on the air on CNN's "Situation Room," saying that he just found out last month about his roots after reading the article in the Forward and asking his 83-year-old mom about it. Allen said his mom had made him promise not to tell anyone that she was born Jewish, and that he was keeping that promise when asked about it during the debate. (Allen's maternal grandfather, Felix Lumbroso, was imprisoned by the Nazis when the Germans took over Tunis during World War II, and his mom, Henrietta "Etty" Allen, has said she was always fearful that her children might go through what she experienced. She converted to the Anglican faith as a child.)
Sen. Allen teared up during the CNN interview.
"Now it's personal," he said, and by "it" he meant the fight against intolerance and anti-Semitism.
The controversy over Allen highlights an interesting puzzle about Judaism. Is Judaism a matter of faith or ethnicity? Orthodox rabbis will tell you that Jewish identity is passed through the mother. As Goldberg points out, Allen could move to Israel and become a citizen.
"From a Jewish perspective, he is as Jewish . . . as I am," says Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the largest association of Orthodox synagogues in the United States.
But if one does not consider oneself Jewish -- if one grew up identifying as a Christian, as Allen did -- Orthodox rabbis might not be a source of authority. Being Jewish, then, is not a definition on a piece of paper but a three-dimensional object that looks different depending on what direction you approach it from.
Another question: What must it be like to discover a family secret like this -- a secret, really, about yourself -- at the age of 54, and have it play out in public? And to know that your mother kept it from you to protect you, because the Holocaust so traumatized her that she still didn't feel fully safe being a Jew in America in 2006?
"The bottom line is you have a man who might become president whose mother believes that we live in a society where, in order to protect her son, she needs to conceal" her Jewish background, says Ami Eden, an editor at the Forward.
Maybe that's another reason why this whole thing matters. Because we need to have this conversation.
Question: Can the Jews find humor in all of this?
Another question: You need to ask?
This week, Rep. Barney Frank, who is Jewish, suggested "macaca"might have Yiddish roots, though his dissection of the word wasn't quite clean enough for a family newspaper. Jewish comedian Lewis Black, called for comment, demanded DNA tests to prove Allen was Jewish. "We're not claiming him," he said.
And Democratic strategist Paul Begala offered this line straight from the borscht belt: "Mel Gibson asked for his contribution back."
Which prompts more questions: Will George Allen be celebrating the Jewish New Year, which starts tonight?
And with the election coming up, will it be a good New Year for him?