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.