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To Dream of a Jewish President

What would it mean for Bernie Sanders, America’s most famous Jewish politician, to become its commander in chief?

I am writing this article because I’m a Jew. I was asked to write about what having a Jewish president of the United States might mean to me, and in the course of both writing and researching the piece, I was reminded of how my ancestors broke down the texts they loved, how they sifted through the letters for meaning. To write about Bernie Sanders, I had to go to the fourth and the thirteenth centuries before reaching the twenty-first. I found it impossible to understand something so large and strange as the thought of a Jewish president—much less the meaning of a man, his already considerable life, his towering ambition, and all that might come to fruition if his presidency occurs—without turning to older tools.

There are four principal methods by which Jewish scholars parse our sacred texts. Rabbis have always loved acronyms, and collectively these four main types of exegesis are known as פרדס, Pardes. Pardes is a Hebrew word in its own right—it means “orchard”—but as an acronym it encompasses four approaches to commentary: Peshat, the obvious, surface-level meaning of a verse or fragment of sacred text; Remez, the study of hints and allegories, seeking the symbolism beneath the surface; Drash, a form of exegesis that uses intertextual connections; and Sód, the reading of secret things, finding, in the holy letters, mystical resonances and shards of the divine.

The orchard as a metaphor dates to a parable in the Talmud, composed around the fourth century, of four sages who entered the Pardes, the orchard of knowledge of the Torah. One saw the face of God and died a righteous death; one saw the face of God and went mad; one, the famous heretic of the Talmud, began cutting down the saplings; and the wisest and strongest came away without harm. From this cautionary tale, the rabbis of the mystically oriented, kabbalistically inclined tradition of thirteenth-century Spain created an entire system of study. They loved most and best of all the perilous play of secret knowledge.

There is a joke that comes from this time: Without Sód, Pardes becomes merely Pered, the Hebrew word for mule. In other words, without secrets life is burden-work and business, furrow, yoke, plow—sterile and fruitless. So to fully analyze the living text that is a man, it must be done four ways. By Peshat, Remez, Drash, and finally by Sód—with that secret and inmost heart that looks at what the world can bear and be. If this is a heretical project, well, my subject is familiar with heresy. Sometimes to build, you must cut down what’s grown and start again from the bare earth.

Part I: Peshat—THE SURFACE

Bernie Sanders acknowledges, in his four books, that he tends to be repetitive. In his first autobiography, Outsider in the House, published in 1997, seven years after his election to the House of Representatives, he writes that his political opponents in Vermont “accuse me of being boring, hammering away at the same themes. They’re probably right.” In the preface to The Speech, a book-length transcription of an eight-and-a-half hour speech he gave before Congress to protest Barack Obama’s extension of Bush-era tax cuts to corporations, he notes, “Let me also warn the good readers of this book that it contains some repetition. That is not an accident.” By 2018, with the publication of Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance, Sanders ceases to inform his audience that he intends to be repetitive and simply is repetitive—it is a campaign hardback soft on stirring prose and heavy on the viewer statistics of Bernie Sanders’s livestreams.

Nonetheless, the themes of Where We Go From Here echo those of Outsider in the House—and, more broadly, of Sanders’s entire political career. The principal arguments in his latest book forcefully—and yes, repetitively—bring up the same points he raised in his 1997 memoir. “It has never made sense to me, then or now, that a tiny clique of people should have incredible wealth and power while most people have none,” he wrote 23 years ago. This is his refrain, spoken loud enough and often enough to break through the grim miasma of American national politics at last, starting in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Smashing this imbalance of power by means of governmental intervention, and in the interests of what he calls the “simple idea of justice,” has served as the linchpin of Sanders’s rise to national prominence; the consequences of such a dismantling, and the complexities of how to go about it, have in turn made him a deeply polarizing figure.

His penchant for repeating his narrative for the country only amplifies his silence about other stories he could tell. He is typically chary in supplying details about his upbringing. Even in his initial memoir, he offers more about the byzantine machinations of small-town Vermont politics than any hint of a bildungsroman. What insight he offers into his formation as a man is usually tossed into an aside—he takes a grand total of three paragraphs to describe his involvement in “radical politics at the University of Chicago” in the 1960s. Eugene V. Debs, the fiery labor organizer and perennial socialist presidential candidate, is mentioned more often than Sanders’s wife. The word “Jewish” is mentioned only once—in the context of his parents voting Democratic “like virtually every other family in our Jewish neighborhood,” but being “basically nonpolitical.” His father is described as a paint salesman, an immigrant, a put-upon breadwinner contending with scarcity as best he can; that he fled Poland’s pogroms across a whole sea to Brooklyn is not mentioned at all.

By 2016’s campaign memoir, Our Revolution, Sanders’s Jewishness merited two full paragraphs, including a mention of the Holocaust. But throughout his political career, very much including his years in the national spotlight, the candidate has willfully turned attention away from personal narrative and by extension the political nostrum that the candidate himself is a product to be sold, manufactured at the moment of his birth. This was illustrated almost comically by a 2019 Yahoo! News segment in which reporter Hunter Walker presented Sanders with the immigration records of his own family—the 1921 passenger manifest of the ship his father took to America; his maternal grandmother’s naturalization petition—and Sanders reacted with a jerk of the head, a “Wow.” It seemed like the first time he had seen the documents; research into his genealogy, in absence of any such inquiry mounted by the candidate himself, had been outsourced to the press.

The narrative Sanders is interested in telling, far more than the story of his own life, is the story of a country broken by greed and its recklessness, and how it can be repaired by the focused will of the masses. Even in the service of this exegesis, as one pores over his own words to determine his trajectory as a man, it is difficult to shake the preexisting image of Sanders with which the nation was first confronted: florid; white-haired; bespectacled; and raising his finger high into the maw of a debate-stage klieg light, making his points about billionaires yet again.

Yet the peshat—the surface—of Bernie Sanders is not only found in his speeches and what he writes about himself. It is also written in his crowded features and high color, the vocal ferocity of his anger, his tendency towards gesticulation, the straying wisps of his white hair. His speech is pure Brooklyn, his arms jerkily underscore the staccato of his rage. All this is so plainly Jewish that in a Jewish heart it strikes a chord of deepest recognition. What is familiar is not necessarily beloved; what is known is not necessarily wanted; but to be an American Ashkenazi Jew and listen to the speech of Bernie Sanders, and watch the motion of his hands, is to know he is one of us—a carbon copy of an uncle or a member of one’s synagogue. His hands thrust up in the air are ours; he, too, can illustrate the punch line of the old joke, “How do you make a Jew shut up? Tie his hands behind his back.” The rough cantorial rise and fall of his voice says Jew and Jew and Jew while it says justice and billionaires and health care.

Though he has chosen not to make it central to his appeal, he would be the first Jewish president of the United States. And even on the surface, that is an extraordinary, a world-historical thing.


What would it mean to have a Jewish president?

The figure of the Jew in the anti-Semitic imagination typically presents as the éminence grise—the shadow behind the throne, the puppeteer behind the curtain. Like any good conspiracy theory, anti-Semitism is predicated on hidden knowledge, in this case the secret that any social ill may be attributed to malevolent Jewish control. These theories are often byzantine. To cite the most famous and violent recent iteration of anti-Semitism, many white supremacists believe in the “Great Replacement”: To the radical fringe, it is a Jewish-engineered plot to dilute the white race by means of encouraging overbroad immigration policies and the breakdown of borders. These actions, they believe, are being carried out in order to tactically breed a country of mixed-race citizens who, by virtue of their nonwhite blood, are duller and more docile to the predatory machinations of Jewish will. It is this theory that inspired Robert Bowers to gun down 11 Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, among other incidents that constitute a historic rise in anti-Semitism under Donald Trump.

Key to the Great Replacement and its varied kin is the notion that the Jew has engineered an assimilation into whiteness in order to covertly destroy it from within. At his core, the ur-Jew of the anti-Semitic imagination is the true power behind what presents itself as power, the Semitic fist in the snow-white glove.

To have a Jew in the Oval Office would at the very least complicate these theories. It is difficult to have a country secretly controlled by Jews if it is openly led by one. This would not mean a reduction in anti-Semitism, necessarily, but one wonders how such theories would adapt, whether the antagonism would become more pronounced or veil itself still more.

Part of what it might mean to have this particular Jewish president is that anti-Semitism would commingle with anti-government extremism. A President Sanders would take the subtext of various militias around the country—that the government must be opposed because it is controlled by godless socialists who are “not like us”—and render it text. One trembles, a little, at the thought, because anti-Semitism is an old, hoary creature that has survived many eras and found a parasitic usefulness in each. The tradition of anti-leftist anti-Semitism is not new in America, and midcentury red-baiting always had an anti-Semitic flair. Consider the Rosenbergs frying in the electric chair in that sultry summer of 1953, when Bernie Sanders was just one year shy of his bar mitzvah. Ten years later, he would be marching in the streets of Chicago for school integration and reading Marx in the University of Chicago library.

Sanders has done more to rehabilitate and rejuvenate the term socialism than anyone else in this country. That what he presents as his platform would not be particularly radical in most other countries—a health care system that does not leave cancer patients crushed by debt, say, or public college offered as a public good—does little to dim his daring. Perhaps you have to be the son of a Jew who fled across a sea, a Jew who got a call at home when one of his father’s relatives was found alive in a displaced-person’s camp in the 1940s and all the rest were dead, to even think of it. To stand and poke your finger in the klieg light’s eye and demand it. Perhaps you have to have a Jew’s history of exclusion and otherness and a Jew’s audacity to do that.

Why has Sanders been reluctant to make such a connection himself—at least for the greater stretch of his public life? (In a rare such moment, he told a town hall in New Hampshire in February that the Holocaust taught him the value of equality and egalitarianism: “What it’s about is that we are human beings. We share common dreams and aspirations.”) It is worth considering for just a moment how relatively recent the cultural archetype of the American Jew is. American Jewry as any statistically noticeable part of the population, even if just 2 percent, dates back just over a hundred years, to the great waves that came in response to pogrom after pogrom in the 1890s and onward into the twentieth century. Sanders was born not long after there were Jews in America in any significant numbers. Culturally, in the ’40s and ’50s, we lived loudly among ourselves and quietly where we could be seen. Sanders was 28 when Portnoy’s Complaint came out—the seminal Philip Roth novel that first introduced America to the notion of the smothering Jewish mother, the emasculated father, the libidinal son. Sanders was 36 and had already lost two quixotic campaigns for governor of Vermont when Annie Hall came out, was mayor of Burlington by the time Zelig hit the big screen. The archetype of the Jew in American public life—neurotic and too smart for his own good and slave to his passions maybe, but a Jew, and declaratively and inescapably so—had not yet emerged until long into Sanders’s political career. He didn’t make a fuss about being a Jew; you can talk about justice in a homogenous white rural state in whatever cadence you please, especially when Vermont has so few Jews in the first place.

Nonetheless, by 2020 he was writing in Jewish Currents—the favored publication of Jewish arch-leftists—“I am a proud Jewish American.” And: “I will always call out anti-Semitism when I see it. My ancestors would expect no less of me.” Perhaps it took that long to be able to say it out loud while running for president—most of a century, a very long century in which Jewish flesh burned in Treblinka and our bodies fell to the ground in Pittsburgh and San Diego, and a Jewish man is running for president, and God help us, God preserve us, there is a chance he might actually win.


Who do we compare Bernie Sanders to?

If we imagine him as president, there is only one Jewish leader of a major Western power to look to, and that is Benjamin Disraeli, who was prime minister of Britain from 1874 to 1880. His parents were named Isaac and Miriam, and in 1879 he was made an earl by a queen. He had a brother named Naphtali; he was a Tory and voted, against overwhelming opposition, to amend the oath of Parliamentary office so it might be taken by a faithful Jew who did not wish to swear in the name of Christ. He was a prolific novelist and a fearsome, brutal colonialist and is buried in a magisterial tomb in Buckinghamshire. There have been few globe-spanning empires on the order of the United States and fewer Jews at their helms: Disraeli is perhaps the closest analogue to a Jewish-American president. But it is difficult to imagine Bernie Sanders ever becoming an earl or commanding a conquest of Ethiopia.

The opposition leader in the Senate is Chuck Schumer, and he is a Jew. The president’s nickname for him, “Cryin’ Chuck,” comes from a public speech in which Schumer choked up at the thought of his relatives who had died in the Holocaust. Schumer famously bases his policy decisions on a nonexistent Long Island family called the Baileys who are not Jewish and who are quintessential moderates; he uses these archetypes that he invented as a barometer for the policies he supports, which have included the Iraq War.

Sanders and Schumer went to the same public high school in Brooklyn, but they are very different kinds of public Jew. Schumer is stridently pro-Israel—he once got in trouble for advocating an economic stranglehold in Gaza while speaking at an Orthodox event—and describes himself as a “person of faith.” Bernie Sanders is not a person of faith and has spoken out for the rights of Palestinians. Schumer married a Jewish woman named Iris and lives in Brooklyn, and Sanders married a non-Jew named Jane O’Meara and lived in the woods.

It may be unfair to compare Schumer to the legions of Christian fanatics in the U.S. Congress, but it is important to consider the construct of “faith” as it operates in American politics. In formulations like Schumer’s, to call oneself a “person of faith” is an article of reassurance, to Christians, that the speaker is just like you, despite being part of a religious minority that wears funny hats sometimes. Schumer’s profession of faith assures Christians that there is commonality after all, and that the reign of Christian divinity in the American public sphere will never be seriously challenged. The refrain from many public Jews follows the same basic logic: I am a person of faith, I believe in a God to whom I prostrate myself, just like the Baileys. Don’t be frightened of me.

Sanders, again, is not a person of faith, or at least doesn’t practice one. It is perhaps no coincidence that he also largely refuses to participate in a foreign policy around Israel that predicates itself on Christian eschatology. Christian Zionism—the belief that a Jewish Israel is a prophetic precursor to the return of Christ in the End of Days—is ever more stridently part of U.S. policy toward the Middle East and certainly animates the diplomatic labors of Mike Pompeo, our zealous secretary of state. Pompeo once compared Donald Trump to Esther in the biblical Book of Esther, a heroic figure who’s come to save the Jews from the Iranian menace. Christian Zionism is inherently an endeavor of erasure, for Jews. In the prophecies, the Jews restored to their homeland prostrate themselves before the ascendant King of the Jews, the returning Messiah whom they once spurned—and Judaism is erased from the Earth forever.

There are a great number of public Jews who have decided to play ball with Christian Zionists, in the surety that the End of Days their evangelical allies long for will not come to pass; that Judaism, therefore, will not be erased from the Earth; and that powerful supporters matter more than their motives. Thus the somewhat surreal situation in which a Jewish candidate for president is facing a slew of vicious opposition ads run by an Astroturfed PAC called “Democratic Majority for Israel.” This is because Bernie Sanders, who married out of the faith and fled to the woods of Vermont and remembers playing stickball in south Brooklyn, has scorned this endeavor and bucked political orthodoxies by merely asserting that Palestinians should have human rights and that this should be nonnegotiable as a starting position.

Sanders refuses to reassure the faithful that he is just like them, but there are many Americans with no faith at all who do not seem to mind. There is, after all, a long and flourishing tradition of secular Jews—and in particular secular Jewish leftists—who were Jewish in every particle of their being and who scorned God as if he were a bad lover. A clamorous bunch rattling at the siege-walls of history. And sometimes breaking them until a little light spilled in.


Here is the secret:

I want a Jewish president.

I am terrified to have a Jewish president.

I want a female president, too—I am also a woman—and sometimes the two hopes seem impossible to reconcile, coming, as they do in this primary season and in the last, directly in opposition to one another. But I want a Jewish president so badly I can feel it in my bones: It is the hope for an end to deracination, a hope for some final approval, proof that we do belong in this country and always will. My own grandfather looked nothing like Sanders and acted nothing like him; he was a quiet and rather saintly man with a white beard, a rabbi and a Holocaust survivor who suffered from night terrors and ran a small congregation in Borough Park for most of his life. Nonetheless, there is a quality in Sanders that is not a grandfather or a grandpa or a gramps but a Zaydie, which is the Yiddish word for grandfather. In the election of a Zaydie might come some solace in the knowledge that my grandparents, like Sanders’s father, fled here across the sea while their families burned. That they fled to the right place. There would be a hope to never have to run again. To belong. I am terrified it will backfire and that the hope itself will prove its own undoing. I would also like to be able to go to the doctor without triple-checking my bank account and to know that my diabetic friends can afford their insulin and to cease being embarrassed and afraid and undone a little bit each day by the stranglehold of corrupt fascism over our government. I would like to be free the way you are free when you are less likely to go bankrupt, free when you are free of fear and shame. I would like to know a Jew did that. That’s the secret. Now you know.