Pitting Family Against Politics in Ohio

How Politics Complicates the Jewish Extended Family


By Austin Ratner

Published October 07, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I’ll forever remember Gene Wilder in the 1979 movie “The Frisco Kid.” He plays a Polish rabbi newly arrived in America in the days of the Wild West. In the first scene, he sees some Mennonite farmers dressed as he is, in black hats, and, overjoyed and relieved, he mistakenly calls out: “Landsman!” The grown-ups laughed over this line, so I did too. But I also understood this Hollywood movie in its great wisdom to be offering up a parable. The rabbi calling out “Landsman” in a strange land was the Jewish people. Just like good and gentle Wilder in “The Frisco Kid,” we wandered the terrible Wild West alone and vulnerable, like a lost porcupine without a full complement of quills — armed not with a gun, but with a precious family album called a Torah. The uncomprehending strangers who robbed and abused us thought it comic that we prized this weird, worthless scroll and rudely discarded it, after which we’d patiently retrieve it and lovingly brush the dust from the red velvet mantle that covered our ancestral memories.

It’s perhaps stating the obvious to say that the “Landsman!” scene reflects Jews’ self-conception not as an ethnicity or a religion, but as an extended family. This historic sense begins, of course, with the pictures of embattled Jewish families in the Bible. These have spoken to millennia of Jews in exilic lands, up to David Ben-Gurion and beyond. The embrace of this extended family is one of the loveliest, comfiest, most rewarding aspects of the heritage; however, it’s also a complicating factor in Jewish politics. To observe this, you need look no further than my own family.

The Ratner family immigrated to Cleveland from Poland around 1920 and established a lumber company, and eventually a real estate development business, called “Forest City,” after an old nickname for Cleveland. The tight-knit family has been devoted to Cleveland causes and institutions ever since. I would hazard a guess that the majority of Ratners, like the majority of Jews, are also liberals. Close relatives work for President Obama and fundraise for the Democrats. Josh Mandel, however, who married my second cousin, is the Republican Ohio state treasurer, recently seen on the campaign trail alongside Mitt Romney. He’s currently running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown in a race that’s drawn almost $20 million from such Republican interest groups as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. I asked my aunt, Deborah B. Ratner, a major Brown supporter and Democratic fundraiser, if it made for any uncomfortable moments at family gatherings. “Look,” she explained to Mandel recently, “I don’t want this to be awkward, but you represent everything I’ve spent my life working against.”

Not everyone in the family feels the same, or will admit that he or she does. I know of Democrat relatives who have supported Mandel’s campaign out of family loyalty — a loyalty that is no mean thing. It’s at the heart of the biblical Jewish identity, and, more proximally, it’s the lineal mortar that bound a generation of immigrant Ratners from Bialystok, Poland, into a prosperous family business and binds together the generations here in America.

Because Jews tend to want to think of themselves as a family, I’m convinced that many feel inclined to vote for Jews or perceived Jewish interests in the reflexive way that one might support the endeavors of a brother or sister. This is especially so where Israel is concerned. The feeling is that allegiance to the Jewish family, and hence to Israel — which Ben-Gurion once described to Shimon Peres as exactly that, a family — takes precedence over all other concerns. The feeling is that we hang together or we’ll all hang separately.


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!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “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?
  • 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.