Monday, November 13, 2006

The Modern Jewish Patriarchs (and a Few Matriarchs)

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Blaming Judaism for his father's peculiarities, the first Jewish member of Congress converted to Christianity to hide his heritage and preserve his political career.

But with a name like David Levy Yulee, he was only fooling himself.

Times have changed since Yulee became Florida's junior senator in 1845 - more than a century before the southern state became a favorite destination for Jewish retirees from the northeast.

After a handful of victories in Tuesday's election, Jews are poised to have their largest congressional representation ever. This U.S. community of roughly 6 million people - about 2 percent of the nation's population - will contribute 30 members to the House. With 13 Jewish members of the Senate, the proportion in the upper chamber will be 6 1/2 times greater than that in the general population.

"Jews are just political animals," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Politics sort of is the Jewish religion," he added. "There is just such a passion for being in the game, in the process. Jewish life thrives in societies where democracies work, and that is why there is such a heavy buy-in into the American political process."

Like Catholics, Jews long ago abandoned their early 20th-century reputation for living on the fringes of society in immigrant ghettos. Since the 1960s, they have risen sharply in politics, falling short of only the presidency and the vice presidency (although in 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, came within 537 Florida votes of the White House).

The Nov. 7 election may have been a turning point for Jewish pols, who have typically represented Jewish communities. They were elected to Congress not just in California, Florida and New York, but also in Arizona, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

"If you would have told me in the '50s and even the '60s that (some of these states) would elect someone from the Jewish faith, I would have said, `You're crazy,"' said Rosalind Wyman, who in 1953 was the first Jew elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

People no longer are concerned about candidates being Jewish, said Rabbi Kurt F. Stone, author of "The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill."

"They are voting for those people who speak to their heart and to their head," said Stone, a Sherman Oaks native.

But that's not true for all faiths. It wasn't until Tuesday that a Muslim - and a convert at that - was elected to Congress.

Keith Ellison's campaign in Minnesota's 5th District was slowed by suspicions he could be a wolf in sheep's clothing - an Islamic extremist pretending to be a pro-Israel Democrat. Fears about Ellison, who was supported by Minnesota's Jewish community over a Republican Jew, were reminiscent of those half a century ago that presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy would be a papal pawn.

"It is an unfortunate reality that people use every tactic of mudslinging and name-calling, except here the name-calling had to do with his religion and not him personally," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the L.A.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Mr. Ellison overcame it. It is a success story, and I hope it is one every household learns about as we get more Muslim-Americans engaged in politics."

Yulee, the first Jewish senator, served 12 years before becoming the "Father of Florida's railroads," according to his congressional biography. Half his tenure he served alongside Judah P. Benjamin, a Yale-educated Jew who was the last Southern politician to leave Congress before the Civil War.

"Up until the last moment, he was trying to keep the Union together," Stone said of the man who became the war secretary and state secretary of the Confederacy and was referred to as "Mr. Jefferson Davis' pet Jew."

Today, both California senators and eight of the state's U.S representatives - including five from the L.A. area and Congress' only Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos of San Mateo - are Jewish.

"My parents always taught me that it was important to do what you can to make society better, whether that be locally or on a larger scale," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.

"I took that to heart and always wondered what was the most efficient way to do that because I was thinking like a CPA long before my first accounting class. And I concluded that being involved in government and politics was the most efficient way to make society better."

Jewish politicians often mention tikkun olam. Hebrew for "repairing the world," the concept is instilled in Jewish children.

"To mend the world," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, explaining why he entered politics. "There is a public-service ethic that is part of the Jewish tradition and an interest in looking out for people who are less well off."

That has translated into socially progressive politics. For almost 80 years, Jews were considered a one-party community. Their reverence for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt led to the joke that Jews believe in three velts - a Yiddish word for "world": die velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.

But three of the 43 Jewish members of the 110th Congress are Republicans. National exit polls found 88 percent of Jewish votes went to Democrats and 12 percent to Republicans. A poll administered for the Republican Jewish Coalition reported 26 percent of Jews voted Republican.

Congressional Jews generally favor stem-cell research, reproductive rights and the separation of church and state. But there is no Jewish caucus, and political ideologies run the gamut - from the socialist Rep. Bernard Sanders, newly elected to the Senate, to Rep. Eric Cantor, the House's only Republican Jew.

Across the nation, Jews' greatest bond is their support for Israel - but that goes for most politicians on Capitol Hill. Even about Israel, Jews will disagree on policy details.

"Our political persuasion is as diverse as the American electorate," said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "If there is some commonality in their voting, it probably has nothing to do with their faith and something to do with their social philosophy.

"These are not people who are elected to office because they happen to be Jewish."