Schneiderman Gets Used to the Spotlight

Telling Personal Story Comes Hard to Fast-Rising Leader

He’s Not Shy Now: Eric Schneiderman celebrates his election as state attorney general, November 2, 2010.
getty images
He’s Not Shy Now: Eric Schneiderman celebrates his election as state attorney general, November 2, 2010.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 19, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

It was a Friday night in February at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, and Eric Schneiderman should have been pleased with himself.

The New York State attorney general had just had one of the most important weeks of his career: The previous day, he and other state attorneys general had announced a settlement with big banks over bad mortgage foreclosure practices — a deal that Schneiderman had blocked for months before forcing a change to allow further claims against the banks.

And then there was the announcement made at the State of the Union a few weeks earlier that Schneiderman would co-chair a multi-agency task force to investigate the mortgage crisis, a move that gave the onetime state senator a public profile for the first time in his life.

But all this newfound prominence wasn’t resting easy with Schneiderman.

“I really in many ways am a very private person,” he said, sitting in a basement room after an address to Central’s wealthy and prominent congregation. It had taken 10 minutes to extricate Schneiderman from the crowd of well-wishers that swarmed him after his speech. “It’s a little odd to become more and more well known,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable with it. It’s new. I’m getting used to it.”

Schneiderman has won big victories before. But though he has been in the public eye since he was elected to the State Senate in 1998, the progressive Jewish Democrat from Manhattan’s Upper West Side has always been more or less a background player, and something of a cipher.

An ambitious politician, he is uncomfortable talking about himself. Though he dated a television star, he never shows up on the gossip pages. And while he is a highly visible Jew who speaks in public about how his religion informs his politics, in private he is reluctant to give details on how he came to Judaism relatively late in life.

Schneiderman, 57, is a conventional-looking middle-aged lawyer with buzzed, graying hair and a sharp widow’s peak. His biography reads like any Wall Street hotshot’s: son of a prominent securities attorney; graduated Trinity School in Manhattan; attended preppy Amherst College, then Harvard Law. But instead of making it in business, Schneiderman fell under the sway of Jerry Nadler, the longtime Upper West Side congressman who is now perhaps the most powerful Democratic kingmaker in New York City.

The two met in 1987, when Nadler was a state assemblyman and Schneiderman a staffer for Mel Miller, then the assembly’s Democratic majority leader. Schneiderman had formed a committee to raise money to win the Republican-dominated Senate for the Democrats, an unpopular cause even among the Democratic leadership, which was entrenched in the Albany status quo.

“I was very impressed with that,” Nadler remembered. “Especially because he was on the staff of someone who was not particularly sympathetic with that goal.”

The campaign would become a crusade that Schneiderman would fight and ultimately win two decades later. But first Schneiderman went into private practice, though he remained in touch with Nadler. Schneiderman joined the Community Free Democrats, Nadler’s Upper West Side club, and began hanging around with the slightly older Nadler and the slightly younger Scott Stringer, now Manhattan borough president, who took Nadler’s assembly seat in 1993, when Nadler went to Congress.

Those intermediary years were times of personal discovery for Schneiderman. In a recent interview with the Forward, Schneiderman said that his parents had not been religious Jews. In fact, the Forward reported in 1998 that Schneiderman’s mother had converted to Christianity and that Schneiderman himself was baptized at St. George’s Cathedral, an Episcopal church on 16th Street. But now, at least in public, Schneiderman describes Judaism as a driving force in his political philosophy.

“The Constitution of the State of New York doesn’t really define the role of the attorney general,” Schneiderman noted in his February 10 address at Central. “I do have to serve as the state’s lawyer and defend the state, but in areas of pursuit of justice, or affirmative litigation areas, the constitution does not tell me what my mission is or what the scope of my duty is… In the absence of constitutional authority I have chosen to look to another set of books to tell me what the goals of my office should be,” he said, meaning the Hebrew scripture. “Books in which we are directed to seek justice and justice alone.”

Asked afterward how Judaism wound up being so central to his life, Schneiderman was vague. “It really was as an adult that I started to get engaged,” he said. “I think it was really more just a determination I made over time, and I read a lot.” He would not cite specific books that had impacted his thinking.

Schneiderman joined Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in the mid-1990s, then a fast-growing Upper West Side synagogue known for its progressive politics. Nadler is also a member.

By 1998, when Schneiderman decided to leave private practice for public office, he had both Nadler and Stringer supporting his State Senate run. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch remembers taking him to visit senior centers.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.