Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The walking America

Toward the end of his inaugural address, President Obama said, "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed....why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

This is one of the only times I have ever heard Obama even allude to his race. Throughout the entire campaign, he remained remarkably silent on the subject. The only time his race was mentioned at either of the conventions was in one gracious line by Mike Huckabee at the Republican Convention. If you think that's easy, contrast it with how often Joe Lieberman referred to his Jewishness during the 2000 campaign. For example, Lieberman's acceptance speech contained the line, "I cannot express with words the gratitude that I feel in my heart today as the first Jewish-American to be honored to be a major party candidate for the Vice Presidency." Find me one moment where Obama talks about feeling honored as an African American. He not only rarely brings up the subject, but when he does, it is usually indirect, as in his quip last summer about not looking like the men on the coins.

That's why I'm astounded whenever I hear people say his candidacy was entirely about race. How did that perception come about? Well, for starters, his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father that first brought him to public attention is largely about the struggles of a biracial man to find his identity in a racially polarized world. Another reason is that his "race speech" in the wake of the Rev. Wright controversy became perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire campaign.

More significantly, though, the pundits couldn't shut up about the subject. And no matter what Obama did, there was undeniably a symbolic aura surrounding his candidacy. People were intrigued by him, who he was, and not just what he said. They found his life story, while not as heroic as John McCain's, equally fascinating.

His mantra of "change" resonated in different ways, because on one level it highlighted a substantive program to reverse the destructive policies of the Bush Administration, but on another it was a call to remake the image of the American government before the entire world. Outside the United States, Bush has always evoked the worst stereotypes of Americans--the country bumpkin, the frat-boy, the privileged son of rich whites, the member of an elite class with a callous disregard for the plight of the weak. (If any of those stereotypes seem to conflict with one another, that is partly a reflection of Bush's image-making, which cast this Ivy Leaguer as a rural American.) It may not be fair, but Obama overturns those stereotypes all at once, simply because of who he is: a walking America.

Before Obama appeared on the national stage, anyone would have predicted that the first black president would have a name like Harold Williams, or even George Washington. Obama isn't just the first black president, he's the first president with a funny name. His biological father was Kenyan, but he was raised partly in Indonesia by an Asian man, and the rest of the time on American soil by whites. I don't mean to imply that his background is unusual. On the contrary, it speaks to the greatness of America in a way that the office of the presidency has tended to conceal.

Even though he doesn't talk about his own race very often, one of his central messages has always been bringing people of different backgrounds together. That was much the thrust of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention ("There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America"), which propelled him to national attention and convinced many people, including yours truly, that he was potential presidential material.

It isn't just rhetoric; he seems to have accomplished some of this goal in the diverse coalition he built. He didn't just attract a higher percentage of blacks than usual, he also received a larger proportion of the white vote than any Democrat since Carter. He also won every region of the country except the South, and even there, he won three of the eleven states from the Old Confederacy: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. A black candidate could have won the presidency with a narrower band of support.

That America would eventually elect a black man as president was probably inevitable; that it would be someone like Obama is unexpected. He didn't just win, he smoothed out a range of demographics that most people considered to be deep, insuperable divisions. In this scheme, he doesn't need to talk about his racial identity because it so clearly informs how he has approached the task of trying to unite America.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I am going to ask a question that, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever asked before: Is Alanis Morrissette Jewish?

This question occurred to me when I visited her Wikipedia page recently. The section on her early life described her father as French Canadian. That much I knew already. But then it said something I did not know: her mother was a Hungarian immigrant named Georgia Mary Ann Feuerstein.

Feuerstein? Feuerstein?

I did some checking, and I came to a Google Books preview of Morrissette's biography, written by music journalist Paul Cantin. The book revealed that Ms. Feuerstein came to Canada as a child when her parents were escaping an anti-Soviet uprising. She and Morrisette's dad met as teenagers, but "Georgia's strict European parents did not allow her to date, and so they spent their time together playing badminton, broomball, and street hockey."

Neither this book nor the Wikipedia article gave any indication that Feuerstein--or Alanis, for that matter--had Jewish roots. I typed the words "alanis feuerstein jewish" into Google and found nothing.

This episode forms part of a bizarre pattern I've noticed. With most famous people, any smidgen of Jewish ancestry will get some press as soon as it is revealed. I remember the hoopla over Madeline Albright's discovery that her mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Christopher Hitchens, too, seemed deeply affected when he found out his mother's mother was Jewish.

In 2006, it happened to Senator George Allen in the wake of the controversy over his "macaca" moment that probably cost him his Senate seat and his presidential aspirations for the 2008 election. (Since "macaca" is a racist slur in some French dialects, reporters were spurred to look into the background of Allen's French-speaking Tunisian mother, Etty Lumbroso, who turned out to be a Sephardi who had hidden her Jewishness from her husband and son all those years.) You simply don't see comparable attention given to people who discover, say, an unknown Italian ancestor.

In the 2004 presidential election, I saw at least one article describing the Jewish connection of three of the candidates: John Kerry's grandfather was Jewish, Wesley Clark's father was, and Howard Dean is married to a Jew.

There are even celebrities who have long been commonly, incorrectly thought to be Jewish by many people: Charlie Chaplin and Dr. Seuss (born Theodore Geisel) come immediately to mind. (I admit to being surprised about Dr. Seuss, who was apparently German-American. I always thought his pen name was a reference to the Hebrew word for horse. It turns out that Seuss is his actual middle name, and it is properly pronounced "soyce.")

That's why it's curious whenever a celebrity has hints of a Jewish past but no one seems to talk about it. John Goodman has a Jewish-sounding surname, but I have been unable to find any information at all about his ethnic or religious background. Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) might have Jewish paternal ancestry, but it is rarely mentioned anywhere, and Starr has never identified as a Jew. Michael Caine (born Maurice Micklewhite) claims not to be Jewish, but he attended a Jewish school as a kid and speaks Yiddish.

You might wonder why I'm obsessing over this topic. I am afflicted by the condition made famous by Adam Sandler's Chanukah song, of having a weird preoccupation with trying to determine which celebrities are Jewish or of Jewish descent. Jews with this condition can easily be mistaken for anti-Semites, and vice versa. (The neo-Nazi site Jew Watch keeps a list of celebrities it identifies as Jews--often unreliably. An innocent observer stumbling on the page might easily think it was written by a Jew.) It is such a prevalent condition that it's a wonder no one has coined a word for it. I'd call it Sandlerism.

Mistaking Sandlerism for anti-Semitism was the subject of a funny anecdote in David Zurawik's informative book The Jews of Prime Time. An old SNL skit, co-written by Al Franken, featured a game show in which panelists were shown a photograph of someone famous and asked to guess if that person was Jewish or not. "Our first famous personality," said the host, "is Penny Marshall, the star of television's Laverne & Shirley. Okay, panelists, Jew or not a Jew?"

The skit cut to a mock commercial parodying a series of IBM commercials at the time called "You Make the Call." The narrator says, "Sandy Koufax is on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's Game Seven of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. The stylish left-hander is involved in a tense battle.... Okay, IBM invites you to make a call: Sandy Koufax--Jew, or not a Jew?"

The game show returns and the host tells the audience that Penny Marshall is in fact Italian--and then awards prizes to the contestants who guessed "not a Jew."

The night after this skit aired, SNL producer Brandon Tartikoff (himself Jewish) received a call from his mother. "I'm embarrassed to call you my son. This Jew/Not-a-Jew sketch was the most anti-Semitic thing I've ever seen." There was a long pause. "Besides," she said, "I always thought Penny Marshall was Jewish."