When I told a friend last year that I was moving to New York, he told me he was jealous that I was “making aliyah,” employing the Hebrew phrase people use when they talk about moving to Israel. The idea that the Big Apple with its million Jews is holy — the true center of the Jewish world — is not uncommon in some Jewish circles. But my response was something that I’ve long believed to be true, no matter how much people might scoff: If you really want to understand Jewish life in America, the one state you have to look at is not New York, but Minnesota.
Jews account for less than 1% of the population in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, my home state — home of my family on both sides for more than a century. Yet it has the longest streak of electing a Jew to the United States Senate.
That streak will soon end when Al Franken officially submits his resignation on January 2, 2018, a little more than a month after a series of women accused him of inappropriate behavior. A very public — if not a very devout — Jew, Franken will be replaced by Lt. Gov. Tina Flint Smith, who seems perfectly qualified but is about as Jewish as Betty Crocker (for whom she used to do marketing).
The Senate streak, which will have lasted 39 years, included four different senators from both political parties. It’s one thing to win a House district with a major Jewish population, or one with borders gerrymandered to guarantee that an incumbent keeps his seat. It’s another to win it in a statewide race, particularly in a state with so few Jews, especially when you consider that the Jewish victors were both Democrats and Republicans.
What happened in Minnesota over the past 40 years ought to have resonance for the American Jewish community. How did a state with a Jewish population of 45,000 — the “Frozen Chosen” — become a proving ground for some of the most important figures in American Jewish life? And, perhaps just as important, why did no Jews outside Minnesota seem to notice?
In the 1930s and ’40s, Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, was the most anti-Semitic city in the United States. Many neighborhoods, university programs, banks and country clubs were closed to Jews, as often occurred elsewhere in the United States, but in Minneapolis it was worse by a significant degree: Jews couldn’t even join AAA. Hometown hero Charles Lindbergh praised Hitler’s government. The “Silver Shirts,” an anti-Semitic fascist organization explicitly modeled after Nazi paramilitary groups, freely marched through the city streets and beat up Jewish citizens, who were defended by members of the local Jewish crime syndicate. The Mount Sinai Hospital, where my grandmother worked, was built to employ Jewish doctors blackballed from the other medical centers.
The 1938 gubernatorial election saw allies of Republican Harold Stassen distribute a 60-page pamphlet alleging a Communist conspiracy run by Jewish advisers of the incumbent Elmer Benson. The Silver Shirts campaigned for Stassen, arguing that Benson must be defeated: “If it can’t be done with ballots now, there must be bullets later.” Stassen won, in what one historian called “the most successful use of political anti-Semitism in the United States.”
But anti-Semitism (at least in its most overt form) was brought almost entirely to a halt in 1946 by the most powerful force a Minnesotan can feel: public embarrassment.
Journalist Carey McWilliams, the future editor of The Nation, wrote an article calling Minneapolis “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States,” criticizing the city for its official and unofficial misdeeds. Chastised city leaders made quick changes to their practices, spurred by the avowedly anti-racist new mayor, Hubert Humphrey. Acceptance of Jews in politics and business spread quickly, and by 1961, Minneapolis had elected a Jewish mayor, something unthinkable just 15 years earlier. And in 1978 the entire state welcomed its first Jewish senator, Rudy Boschwitz. Franken now sits in his seat.
Overt anti-Semitism in Minnesota is thankfully almost totally gone (though I will admit that a few internal alarm bells would ring when Minnesotans would criticize Vikings owner Zygi Wilf as a “shady businessman from the East Coast” years before we learned that he really was shady).
But once the Minnesota Jewish community was allowed to socially and economically assimilate, they did so full-throttle. This doesn’t mean they abandoned their religious traditions, culture or history — far from it. What I mean is that they became incredibly Minnesotan.
Like the rest of the state’s residents, the Minnesota Jewish community is highly charitable, though we favor local causes, because we know that nobody else is going to look out for us.
We pride ourselves on being “Minnesota Nice,” which means that we are super friendly, welcoming, helpful and accommodating. (We let people merge on the highway! We resettle the most refugees!). But the strong sense of solidarity forged by subzero temperatures means that we can also be distrustful of outsiders (even if they’ve lived in town for 30 years) and extremely passive-aggressive behind your back.
We are proud of our home state and brag about it all the time — the Jewish and Minnesota-born New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman devoted a whole chapter in his latest book to how awesome his hometown of St. Louis Park is. That city is also the home of such Jewish luminaries as Franken, the Coen brothers and me.
The majority of Minnesotans move back home right after college, or at most spend a few years away, because list after list shows that Minnesota is the best place in the country to live and raise a family.
And yes, a lot of us do talk like characters from the movie “Fargo.”
This trick of Minnesota’s Jews becoming uber-Minnesotans explained how Jews were so quickly able to rise in state politics. It also might explain Bob Dylan’s ongoing 55-year quest to become the symbolic epitome of America itself.
The personal backgrounds of Minnesota’s Jewish senators are also microcosms for the history of Jewish economic opportunity and self-expression in America. Boschwitz, a child refugee of the Nazis, built a successful business in goods and merchandise (in his case, plywood and home interior products) before running and winning as a Republican in 1978. He was defeated in 1990 by Paul Wellstone, a left-wing professor and labor organizer (a key factor in Boschwitz’s defeat: disgust with his campaign’s public criticism of Wellstone marrying a non-Jew). Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the 2002 election, and his replacement on the Democratic ticket, former vice president Walter Mondale, lost to Norm Coleman, a Brooklyn-born Jew who had undergone a radical personal transformation: from 1960s hippie (he was a roadie for Jethro Tull!) to hard-charging Republican lawyer comfortable at the country clubs that could have banned his parents. In 2008, Coleman lost by 312 votes to Franken, an unapologetically Jewy comedian who would often brag during debates, “I’m the New York Jew who actually grew up in Minnesota.”
Now, it seems, Minnesota’s Jews have become so Minnesotan that we don’t even need a Jewish senator anymore.
It’s certainly not as though there aren’t good candidates for future races; Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Secretary of State Steve Simon come to mind.
But sometimes it seems to me that the line between Jewish and Minnesotan has become totally blurred. Maybe it was the Minnesotans who became Jewish rather than the Jews who became Minnesotan. It would certainly explain the openness to refugees, as well as former congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s strange affinity for Yom Kippur services and the word “chutzpah.”
It’s incredible that so much has gone well for Minnesota’s Jews there in such a relatively short time — I mean, my old summer camp sits on land that was once a gentiles-only resort. But it’s a shame, if not an indictment of the communal elitism and self-absorption that is endemic among Jews on the East Coast, that so few people know about it, that no one even knows to look to Minnesota to see a Jewish story that affects the rest of the American community. I know that similar stories could be told about the communities in Nebraska or Colorado or Kansas. How can it be that I still get looks of surprise when I tell strangers at New York synagogues or Shabbat dinners where I’m from? Actually, I think I know the answer.
Look, you don’t have to believe that Minnesota is the real Promised Land (though I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the state lies on the West Bank of a mighty river and is a national leader at producing both milk and honey). Arguments about cost-of-living and synagogue numbers will ultimately be less persuasive than unquantifiable emotions and family ties. But in a time when the Jewish community is split by so many divisions, it’s important to know that there is a place where, if nothing else, we can brave the winter together.
I won’t really miss having Franken as my senator — my only interaction with him was when he gave the commencement address at my high school graduation, and totally half-assed it. But I will miss being able to brag about the streak, pointing to it as a “so there” when people are surprised by my origins.
The streak might be the answer to a really weird “Jeopardy” question. But it’s also a crucial part of the American Jewish story. And it’s a reminder of my home — and a reminder that the Jewish people can make a home anywhere.