A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the 13 Jews in the Senate, specifically the 11 Democrats and the two Independents, Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman, who guard the left and right flanken of the Democratic caucus. I wrote that these two white-haired gents from New England not only define the boundaries of Democratic politics — they also describe a certain arc of Jewish identity in the last century, from secular-socialist to Orthodox-conservative, with the other 11 arrayed in between. You’ve heard of life imitating art? Well, this is a case of the particular managing by sheerest coincidence to mirror the general. Call it Kal ve-chomer be-akrai (from the specific to the general, by chance).
It can now be told that the picture is more complex — and perhaps more complete — than I was able to describe at the the time. Two other senators, both appointed to replace members of the incoming Obama administration, have a single Jewish parent each, and an ambivalent connection to their Jewish heritage: Ted Kaufman of Delaware, appointed to Joe Biden’s seat, and Michael Bennet of Colorado, appointed to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Kaufman had a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and was raised Catholic; but this New York Times profile includes a reminiscence about his childhood in which he seems at one point to contrast himself casually with his “non-Jewish friends.”
As for Bennet, he seems to be rather guarded about his relationship to his Jewish identity — perhaps mirroring his mother’s experience as a hidden child during the Holocaust in Poland. In this profile in the Rocky Mountain News, most of what’s said on the topic comes from his brother James, the editor of The Atlantic. James, a former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, also tosses out an intriguingly vague thought on how the senator will vote on Middle East issues, presumably to answer a question (asked? unasked?) about whether his Jewish background will shape his stance toward Israel. Whatever his sense of Jewishness, Michael Bennet does seem to relate strongly to his identity as a child of a survivor.
Again, the particular coincidentally mirrors the general: the Senate’s latest wave of Jews (if such they are) shares the ambivalent, interfaith identity of the coming generation of American Jews.
And we haven’t yet mentioned Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney-general who is the odds-on favorite to succeed the retiring Senator Chris Dodd. Nathan Guttman writes in this Forward profile that Blumenthal is in line to become the 14th Jewish member of the Senate. In fact he could just as easily be considered the 15th Jewish member, if Bennet is counted, or the 16th, if Kaufman is counted. (Here is a long, in-depth political profile of Blumenthal from Slate.com.)
The 13 currently acknowledged Jewish senators all identify themselves openly and unambivalently with the Jewish community. The entry of senators who are ambiguous in their relationship to the Tribe is something new under the Washington sun. Kal ve-chomer be-akrai.
And now, for something completely different, here’s our promised bonus entry:
We often mention the fact that of all the 44 Jews on Capitol Hill (by the traditional count), only one, Eric Cantor of Virginia, is a Republican. Well, we missed someone: freshman congressman Jason Chaffetz (CHAY-fetz) of Utah. He was born and raised Jewish but converted to Mormonism as an undergrad on a football scholarship at Brigham Young University, where he was a place-kicker (reportedly having converted from high school soccer to college football). He is incorrectly described in many places on the Web as the son of Kitty Dukakis with her first husband, author John Chaffetz, before she married the Massachusetts ex-governor, but that’s not true. Jason is the child of John Chaffetz’s second marriage, after John and Kitty were divorced. Here’s an interesting Daily Kos post about Jason’s relationship with his dad, an outspoken gay rights advocate.
According to this profile in Roll Call, Chaffetz is close to his older half-brother, John Chaffetz Dukakis, a onetime Senate aide to John Kerry. Brother John arranged for Jason to be introduced to the Massachusetts House delegation, all of whom are Democrats. That’s given the very conservative freshman Jewish Mormon some important friendships on the other side of the aisle. Apparently, Rep. Barney Frank isn’t one of them; Chaffetz became the ranking Republican on the House’s District of Columbia Affairs committee, which gave him an opportunity to cast a key “no” vote on approving the District’s gay-marriage law (it passed anyway) and Frank isn’t amused. (Funny how Mormons, of all people, position themselves as defenders of the traditional family.)
Roll Call also says that Chaffetz was approached early on by California Rep. Henry Waxman, the influential chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, who was intrigued by Chaffetz’s Jewish surname and Mormon religious identification. The garrulous Chaffetz turned that encounter into another useful relationship. Unmentioned by Roll Call: Waxman is also the senior Jewish member of the House and the informal dean of the informal Jewish caucus. Odds are, reaching out to Chaffetz was just part of a day’s work for Waxman.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).