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.

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.

Some people automatically assume that Mandel is better for Israel because he is Jewish even though, in my aunt’s words, “Josh’s politics could not be more anathema to the core values of the Jews” — and even though Brown co-sponsored the United States Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012. (Obama signed it into law this past summer.) Other Jews, she speculates, may silently disagree with right-wing friends and relatives, but they don’t speak up, either because they fear confrontation or despair of changing anybody’s mind.

Yet a feeling of love for the “Jewish family,” with all its decisive emotional clarity does not imply any one particular rational course of action. I love my kids, so does that mean I should never chastise or contradict them? Furthermore, if I am lost in the woods with my kids, does my love for them dictate which path I take next? I suspect that some Jews mistake the clarity and decisiveness of their feelings on one hand for a conviction about what to do on the other. This lack of introspection, I would argue, is the real betrayal of Jewish identity, because it’s frankly unintelligent.

I feel the strong pull of familial loyalty, but I have concluded that where politics is concerned, unexamined loyalty feelings are a recipe for clouded judgment. Feelings of familial loyalty translate into Manichean “us versus them” views of the world. While the Manichean view satisfies our absolutist feelings about what should be, it can also obscure our perceptions of a complex reality.

Think of the old blood libel legends about the Jews. Pre-Enlightenment Europe thought in the irrational, emotional terms of “us versus them” loyalty also. As purported interlopers disloyal to the “family” of France or England or Germany or Spain or Russia, we, the Jews, were not “us” but “them.” This feeling in gentile Europe, combined with a widespread failure to think critically, led to credulous agreement that Jews were baby-devouring cannibals, like the mythical Cyclops.

The antidote to anti-Semitism, like that to the anarchy of feudal wars and crusades, was the advance of toleration and reason, and the retreat of passions from the sphere of public knowledge and government — what Immanuel Kant called the Enlightenment. When the feudal mythos receded, the Jews finally had an opportunity to show the world what they could do, and show they did, with the magnificent efflorescence of Jewish achievement that has been ongoing for at least 150 years.

The victory of passions in the public sphere — especially the passion that superimposes simplistic codes of family loyalty onto complex realities — leads deeper into the darkness, not forward into the light. Jews have identified with liberalism because, I’d suggest, it’s much more closely aligned with the Enlightenment values that protect them and under whose aegis they’ve achieved so much: values of toleration, equality, rational discourse, science. Conservatism, with its suspicion of scientific progress, and its naïve permissiveness toward patriotic feeling in place of critical thinking, generally leans backward against the current of enlightenment.

Of course, no political party, including the Democrats, can rightly lay claim to the ideal of liberalism or enlightenment when it puts party loyalty before rationality and practicality, and the Democrats and Republicans seem so mutually invested in wasting the people’s time and money in petty squabbles that one wonders if we ought to excise the bicameral system altogether as an unenlightened lesion on our democracy.

Until that time, however, your choice between Republican and Democrat matters. Brown is a liberal, Mandel is a conservative who overindulges emotion in the public sphere and who continues to speak in the primitive terms of “us versus them.” Brown is, by my estimation, more nearly a Jew in the politically meaningful sense of the word: a Jew as a highly evolved practitioner of enlightened values. Mandel, by his own design, is closer to Bush and to Sarah Palin. According to Politifact.com and Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, Mandel has distinguished himself as a particularly incorrigible propagandist in a profession where lies are common currency. He has, for example, sidled right up to Palin’s “death-panels” lie. Forgoing the values of the Enlightenment, as more and more Republicans have done in recent years, with increasing zeal, is not without its drawbacks for your reputation.

The Jewish people of the enlightened era, from Albert Einstein to Louis Brandeis, have contributed so much to the Jewish family and to the human family through the use of their intellects. Reversing this relationship by making family feeling the engine of insight, falls outside that enlightened Jewish identity. But if that’s your thing and you’re looking for a family to which you’re better suited, there’s always the Tea Party.

Austin Ratner is author of the novels “In the Land of the Living,” forthcoming from Reagan Arthur/Little Brown in March 2013, and “The Jump Artist” (Bellevue Literary Press. 2009), winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.



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