One evening in November 2017, United States Senator Kamala Harris stood facing Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
It was her third visit to Israel, but the first time she’d come with a special escort: Her husband Doug Emhoff.
Though he is Jewish, Emhoff, then 53, had never visited Israel. So Harris, whom he’d married in 2014, invited him to accompany her on an official congressional delegation organized by the Senate.
Harris’s purpose on that visit was to investigate potential areas of cooperation between her home state, California, and the Jewish State — particularly in the areas of water technology and cybersecurity. She also had meetings on the books with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite the punishing schedule, the couple made time to fulfill a Jewish rite of passage which came to define their trip: After a homemade Jerusalem Shabbat, Emhoff and Harris stood alone on the Kotel plaza as the half-Black, half-Indian senator lovingly placed a kippah on her white Jewish husband’s head.
Now, nearly three years later, that same couple is poised to make American political history: Harris as the first Black female vice president and Emhoff, as the first “Second Gentleman.”
And no one is more thrilled about this development than Emhoff’s mother, Barbara.
“My son is a wonderful guy, a wonderful son, and he’s brilliant,” she gushed when reached at her California home just before Shabbat.
But when pressed about her son’s Jewish upbringing, she demurred: “We’ve been sworn to secrecy,” she said. “We were told not to talk to anybody.”
But with Shabbat coming in, perhaps she felt a little generous.
“He was bar mitzvahed in New Jersey, I can tell you that,” she said.
And what about Jewish day school? Or Jewish summer camp?
“Believe me,” she went on, “I really wish I could talk because I think he’s incredible. Just know he was a wonderful, bright student and a great kid.
“Maybe after they get to the White House, I’ll be more free.”
Ladies and gentlemen: The proud Jewish mother-in-law of the potential next vice president.
In a matter of weeks, the nation has become acquainted with the Harris-Emhoff love story. Their whirlwind romance has already proved cotton candy for the media.
But for the Jewish community, their relationship represents something deeper and more complex — a union defined not by love and commitment alone, but by an intersection of identities, cultures, loyalties and values. At a time when Americans are retreating further into a walled-off particularism, here is a couple who embraces multiple identities, and whose relationship serves as a kind of Rorschach test for America’s conflicting appetites: some see a modern mixed-race couple to celebrate; others, an anxiety-inducing blurring of boundaries.
Up close, friends say, the couple is adorable and growing together. In Emhoff, Harris has found a doting partner who totally fanboys over her on social media, but who has also quickly adapted his life to champion her skyrocketing political career.
Over the last several years, Emhoff has served as a trusted advisor, organized lucrative fundraisers and harnessed the support of many in the Jewish institutional apparatus who might serve as political allies.
Earlier this month, Emhoff announced he would take a leave of absence from his firm, DLA Piper, whose international presence could represent a conflict of interest should Harris and running mate, former Vice President Joe Biden, make it to the White House.
But friends say there’s more to this move than ethics: Emhoff is a force of nature himself, whose legal expertise, powerful connections and activist support of his wife would make this Second Gentleman — or “Second Mensch” as his friends like to call him — more of a macher spouse.
“Some spouses are much more on the sidelines,” longtime Emhoff friend Mitch Kamin, a partner at the Los Angeles branch of Covington and Burling, said. “If you think about Elizabeth Warren’s husband, Doug’s not like that. He’s more like Pete Buttigieg’s husband. He’s an attraction himself. I’ve heard some stories about people at law firm fundraisers, younger lawyers, who are like, ‘Is that Doug Emhoff? I really want to meet him,’ and I think that role suits him. For someone who wasn’t super politically involved, he has really grown into this role very quickly and very naturally because he believes in Kamala.”
The Biden-Harris campaign did not make Emhoff available for comment, but friends portray him as a person of strong character, who is well-liked and possesses impeccable legal and business instincts. They describe Emhoff in glowing terms — “big-hearted,” “super smart” “genuine” “generous” and “a family man.”
“He’s just the nicest guy in the world,” said David Lash, an old friend and fellow lawyer who oversees pro bono work for the firm O’Melveny and Myers. “And you know, lawyers are not always the nicest people. But Doug’s just a charming guy that anybody can sit and talk to and enjoy talking to. And he’s really an excellent lawyer.”
Like many lawyers, he’s also very persuasive, known to tap his friends to host fundraisers for his wife. During Harris’s Senate and presidential campaigns, Emhoff was unabashed in calling in favors — sometimes more than once. But it’s at these fundraisers that many of his friends got a private glimpse of the public power couple.
“The thing I remember most is how she spoke about their blended family,” Lash said. “That was the first time I heard her use the term ‘momala’ as the moniker that his kids gave her. My sense of it was that their union was more than just the love that they had for each other but it was really a family moment for them, and a message of great family importance.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised partially in New Jersey, Emhoff moved with his parents to California when he was 17, and has remained there since. He graduated from California State University, Northridge, and received his law degree from the University of Southern California. His own career has in some ways mirrored the upward trajectory of his wife’s, beginning in the early 2000s when he founded his own Los Angeles-based firm. That firm was later acquired by Venable, one of the nation’s oldest and most reputable law firms. In 2017, he joined international powerhouse DLA Piper where he focuses on entertainment litigation in the areas of intellectual property disputes and copyright infringement.
Emhoff’s first marriage to a documentary film producer with whom he shares two children, Cole, 25, and Ella, 21, lasted 25 years. After their marriage ended amicably, the couple remained friends and laser-focused on the well-being of their children. But after a few years as an eligible bachelor, Emhoff was ready to settle down again. In 2013, one of his clients, who also happened to be very good friends with Harris, decided to set them up.
Their courtship story has the feel of a Hollywood rom-com, with a single dad of two meeting a never-married political superstar and falling head over heels in love. It began when Emhoff texted Harris from an LA Lakers game and followed up the next day with a long, rambling voicemail. It was so adorable and embarrassing Harris saved it, and forces him to listen to it each year on their anniversary (the couple will celebrate six years of marriage this weekend).
“He was really taken by her,” Lash said. “He fell madly in love with her very quickly. He was ready to go.”
Lash recalled when Emhoff had to cancel one of their regular scheduled lunches. “Then I read he was getting married to the state attorney general, and I thought, that’s the best excuse anybody could ever give me for changing a lunch.”
The couple was married at a small ceremony in Santa Barbara, with Harris’s sister Maya officiating. To honor Harris’s Indian heritage, Emhoff wore a flower garland, and to honor Jewish tradition, he stomped on a glass.
“What started as romance has evolved into a real partnership,” Kamin said. “They obviously love each other a lot; you can see how she turns to him for support, how enamored she is. She glows when she thanks him. She calls him, ‘Dougie.’”
John Jameson, another Emhoff friend and principal at The Jameson Group, a legal recruiting firm, said he sensed big things for the couple after dining with them for the first time. “There’s something special there; the way they treat each other, a lot of mutual respect, a lot of smiles. And hand-holding. I thought, Wow, Kamala really should be in higher office and I think she’s gonna get there.”
A few years later, Harris won a Senate seat and declared a presidential bid, while Emhoff pursued avenues to help her. As she hit the campaign trail, Emhoff flew to Chicago to meet with Alan Solow, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a national co-chair of the Obama-Biden re-election campaign. Although Emhoff had been involved with the Jewish-inspired pro bono legal services organization, Bet Tzedek, as a young attorney in Los Angeles, he did not have a great deal of experience with the organized Jewish community.
“He asked me a lot about the architecture of the Jewish community,” Solow, a lawyer-turned-political consultant said. “I think he is a person who clearly identifies himself as part of the Jewish people — that’s a significant part of his identity — but I would say he has not spent his life in the Jewish organizational world. He was respectful of that and curious about how that worked.”
Harris, on the other hand, has been deeply connected to the Jewish community throughout her political career. Some of her staunchest supporters and biggest donors are Bay Area Jewish women Amy Friedkin, Cissie Swig and Anita Friedman. As a freshman Senator, the first bill Harris co-sponsored condemned a UN Security Council resolution calling Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal, and called for a two-state solution. She also co-sponsored a bill condemning anti-Semitic hate crimes, including on college campuses.
In 2017, Harris delivered a keynote speech at AIPAC Policy Conference, where she recounted a childhood memory of collecting money for the Jewish National Fund. “I never sold Girl Scout Cookies,” Harris said at AIPAC, “but I raised money to plant trees in Israel.” During a breakout session, when asked what sparked her relationship to Israel, she replied: “I don’t know when it started. It’s almost like saying ‘When did you first realize you loved your family? Or love your country?’ It just was always there. It was always there.”
Though some in the Jewish community are concerned about the rise of anti-Israel, pro-BDS sentiment in the far left flank of the Democratic Party, Harris’s Jewish supporters insist Biden-Harris fidelity to Israel is rock solid. “Am I worried they may waver?” Kamin wondered aloud. “I’m not worried about that at all.”
Still, right-leaning Jewish groups are sounding incessant alarms about what they claim is antisemitism emanating from the left, and in some cases from prominent voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I do think these are issues we have to be concerned about,” Solow, former chair of the Conference of Presidents said. “But the notion that the Black Lives movement has some kind of singular manifesto that’s anti-Israel is wrong. Black Lives Matter is a real movement with legitimacy and therefore we need to make the case successfully that BLM should not demonize Israel and should not support BDS. And someone like Kamala Harris could be helpful in doing that, because she has credibility in both communities.”
“I really do believe she shares the Jewish community’s values,” said Halie Soifer, who served as national security advisor to Harris during her first term in the Senate and who currently services as executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “Not just because she is in some ways a part of our community because of Doug, but because her values — equality and justice and welcoming the stranger — are very similar to ours.”
If Harris’s and Emhoff’s relationship is a weathervane of how they’ll treat sensitive and personal political issues while in the White House, America can expect a second couple that will honor differences and seek common ground. They can also expect Emhoff to carve out his own meaningful turf, even as he relishes cheerleading from the sidelines.
Though his mother is mum, word apparently still gets around.
“He told me his parents are kvelling,” Lash said of all the attention Emhoff is getting — especially among Jews.
“Also, I’m kvelling. My family is kvelling. We’re excited that this wonderful guy that we know who is Jewish is on the precipice of something monumental.”
To his friends, Doug Emhoff, poised to be Second Gentleman, is already “Second Mensch”