President Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve will, if confirmed by the Senate, make her the first woman to lead the bank since its creation nearly a century ago. But she’ll be far from the first Jew.
Yellen, whose nomination to head America’s central bank was reported Tuesday, will follow her immediate predecessor Ben Bernanke who was Jewish, and Bernanke’s immediate predecessor, Alan Greenspan, who was Jewish, too. There have been two other Jewish fed chairs in the past century. In fact, the other frontrunner for the position, Lawrence Summers, was Jewish too.
Yellen, 67, was born in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, to Julius Yellen, a family doctor, and Anna Blumenthal, who was a school teacher. A recent profile of Yellen published in the Financial Times described the family as “Jewish, although not particularly observant.”
Yellen studied economics at Brown and Yale and has spent nearly two decades in the academic world before joining president Clinton’s economic team. She served as a Federal Reserve governor, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, chair of the San Francisco Fed, and until now, vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
In these positions, Yellen has established her credentials as a leading economist who was among the first to speak out against the dangers posed by subprime mortgages. As vice chair of the Fed Yellen supported Bernanke’s policy of maintaining low interest rates and has viewed dealing with unemployment as the key challenge facing the Federal Reserve.
In 1978 Yellen married economist George Akerlof, who is also Jewish. Akerlof won the Nobel prize for economics in 2001 with two other Americans. While living in Berkley, Calif., Yellen and Akerlof were members of the Reform Congregation Beth El, where their only son attended pre-school.
Jewish activists involved in the Bay Area community, as well as those from the Jewish community in Washington, where Yellen has been living off and on, could not recall any further involvement by her in Jewish life or in Jewish organizations. An economist friend of Yellen told the Forward that he knows she is Jewish, “but that’s about it.”
While most expect no problems with Yellen’s confirmation in the Senate, her real challenges will begin once she takes the reins of the central bank in January. After an eight-year term of Bernanke, who focused on trying to bring back the American economy from the brink of recession, Yellen will face the need to make key decisions on the way forward and the level of the Federal Reserve’s active involvement in economic policies.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.