Among the feel-good leitmotifs of the Biden administration’s early days has been the love story of Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff. She is vice president of the United States, the first woman and first person of color to hold the office. He is her husband, the first man to hold the ceremonial role of “Second Gentleman.” And, yes, he is Jewish—another first for the nation. As one Washington, DC wag put it: “If Harris-Emhoff were any more historic, they’d be on display at the Smithsonian.”
While Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse to gain admittance to the White House inner sanctum, others have come close, among them Hadassah Lieberman, wife of former Senator Joseph Lieberman, Vice President Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, as well as Kitty Dukakis, wife of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Other Jews have inhabited the upper echelons, notably presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, a convert to Judaism, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who held high-ranking positions in the executive branch.
In this new administration, appointed Jewish officials include Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. Biden’s COVID-response czar, Jeff Zients, is also Jewish and was even an original investor in the popular DC bagel outlet Call Your Mother. (Biden’s motorcade dropped by one of its shops for takeout after church on a recent Sunday.)
“If Harris-Emhoff were any more historic, they’d be on display at the Smithsonian.”
Still, a first is a first, even if it is a second, and Emhoff’s elevation to second gentleman may be less a sign of major progress for Jews in America than it is an affirmation of decades-old Jewish achievement and permanence. “Maybe 100 years ago, someone would have tried to hide their Jewish identity or create a fictional one,” says Hasia Diner, American-Jewish History professor at New York University. But now, Emhoff “is the face of the new Jewish America.”
Much like other groups, Jews still retain a sense of excitement at one of their own achieving a “first,” no matter what the “first” might be. “It’s part of the inside-outside aspect of Jewish life in America,” says Jack Moline, a rabbi and director of the DC-based Interfaith Alliance. “We know we belong here but we need validation. When someone reaches a place we haven’t reached before, that is tremendously validating. Jews in the United States are excited, even if they don’t know much about him.”
So who is Doug Emhoff? And what brand of American Judaism will he represent, if any? To start with, he is from a very different part of the Jewish world from Jared Kushner, whose presence helped former President Donald Trump fend off accusations of anti-Semitism for four years. Kushner is the product of a close-knit modern Orthodox family with extensive ties to Orthodox Jewish institutions in the United States and beyond. Emhoff, who is 56 and was a successful entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, was raised as a Reform Jew and doesn’t belong to a synagogue. “He’s more of a cultural Jewish person rather than a religious one,” says Aaron Jacoby, a longtime friend and former law partner. “One thing about Doug is he’s authentically himself.”
Emhoff’s relationship to Judaism is on par with that of many American Jews. The dispositive Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” from 2013 found that 62 percent of Jews said being Jewish is more about culture and ancestry than about religion. Fewer than a third said they belong to a synagogue. And, of course, the new second gentleman broke this glass ceiling by dint of stomping on a glass at a wedding and marrying Harris, the part-Jamaican, part-South Asian vice president born in Oakland, California. He is part of an interfaith marriage with a wife whose mother was a Hindu and father a Christian. (The name Kamala means “lotus” in Sanskrit.) Harris attended both a Hindu temple and a Black Baptist church growing up, and has said that she identifies as a Baptist as an adult but enjoys celebrating Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays with her husband. “This is the state of modernity,” says Diner. “Emhoff’s married to an individual who has multiple identities. This is increasingly becoming the norm.” It certainly is in the Jewish community, where the same 2013 Pew survey cited earlier found the rate of intermarriage among Jews who have married since 2005 to be 58 percent.
Emhoff’s people skills will serve him well in parrying the inevitable political crossfire.
“His story is a very American Jewish story,” says Matt Nosanchuk, who served in the Obama White House as liaison to the Jewish community. (He also led Jewish outreach for the Biden-Harris campaign.) Emhoff’s Jewish profile is “based on his life experience, not how many times he’s been to Israel or board membership at his synagogue.” His nonreligious Jewish background “will resonate with American Jews,” Nosanchuk says. “I would expect he will approach his engagement with the community in a broad and inclusive way.’’
Emhoff’s Jewish origins added a new dimension to the 2020 Biden-Harris presidential campaign. He became a familiar figure on the campaign trail, known for his signature dark crewnecks (alternating with Biden-Harris T-shirts), sports coats and trendy Stan Smith white athletic shoes. His campaign portfolio included reaching out to Jewish groups. “Our community thrives and survives and endures no matter what comes our way through the common experiences of the generations,” he told a small gathering of Jews in October in the backyard of a North Dallas home, as reported in the Texas Jewish Post. “I’ve always felt that Jewish values transcend politics. I’ve seen that more and more as I’ve connected with our community all around the country and connected with rabbis all around the country. Wherever we are, whenever we are, however we are, we value togetherness, we value family and we value our common history.” Emhoff also stressed at times that the campaign was “rooted in Jewish values and the ideals that we share: fairness, justice, rule of law, not just for us, but for everyone—for all Americans.”
Wherever he spoke, Emhoff emphasized that Biden was a “mensch” who was motivated to enter the race after Trump’s inadequate response following the rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Biden, he said, was outraged over the dangerous rise in anti-Semitism. “It is not only dangerous for our American Jewish community, it’s dangerous for Americans, it’s dangerous for the world, it’s dangerous for everybody,” said Emhoff at the North Dallas gathering. “It tears at our entire social fabric. The fundamental character of America is on the line.”
The campaign gave Emhoff, who was not granting interviews at the time of this article and declined one for this piece, the chance to demonstrate his familiarity with the commonplaces of Jewish life. On a pair of Zoom calls, he discussed the delights of holiday brisket with two elderly Jewish women, Nosanchuk recalls. Said Emhoff during one campaign speech: “I’m really connecting and reconnecting not only with my faith, but with my community.”
Emhoff spent his early years in an apartment on Ocean Avenue in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. He is the middle child of three born to Michael and Barbara (“Mike and Barb”), two “Made in Brooklyn” characters in their own right, who moved the family to New Jersey when Emhoff was about five years old. In a 2019 interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Harris recalled the first meeting with her prospective mother-in-law. “She looks at me, she puts my face in her hands…She looks at me and says, ‘Oh! Lookitchyou!’” Harris recalled, evoking laughter with her best New York-New Jersey cadence. “You’re prettier than you are on television! Mike, look at her!” Harris added that while her in-laws are in California now, “New Jersey is very much in them.” The clip went viral after Harris’s nomination.
The Emhoffs were part of a Jewish mini-migration from Brooklyn to the Matawan-Old Bridge area, astride the Garden State Parkway on the outer periphery for commuting to New York. The Levitt real estate organization, builders of Levittowns on Long Island and north of Philadelphia, lured Jewish families to their developments in Matawan from Brooklyn in the 1960s with the promise of open space and affordable mortgages. The infrastructure of Jewish life grew up around the newcomers, and the Emhoff family joined Temple Shalom, a Reform synagogue in nearby Aberdeen Township, which opened in 1963.
Emhoff became a bar mitzvah in 1977 and in the summer of 1978 attended Camp Cedar Lake in Milford, PA, a branch of the NJY Jewish summer-camp group that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. A group picture shows a 13-year-old Emhoff in a Donny Osmond haircut with a big smile. He was voted his division’s “most athletic” that year.
The Emhoffs fell into the casual middle ground of American Jewish life, according to Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, a childhood friend of Emhoff’s in New Jersey who is now rabbi of a Reform synagogue in Louisville, Kentucky, also named Temple Shalom. “I came from a family very involved in synagogue life: My parents were on the board at different times. My mom taught in the religious school,” Chottiner says. “We were regular synagogue goers. Doug’s family were not regulars. They were more tangentially involved.” But, Chottiner adds, the Emhoffs felt strongly enough about their Jewish heritage to enroll Doug in the b’nai mitzvah program and send him to Jewish summer camp. On phone calls with Jewish donors during the campaign, Emhoff reminisced about his brown velour bar mitzvah suit.
Like Emhoff, Chottiner was born in Brooklyn and moved with her family to the Matawan area in the 1960s. “Our class was 30 percent Jewish,” she says. “We had a good amount of Jews in the middle of nowhere.” Chottiner recalled a sixth-grade trip in which Doug was her square-dance partner. Was he a good dancer? “He did a good job for a sixth-grade boy,” she says.
Chottiner laughs about once having had a crush on Emhoff. “He was cute, he was Jewish, and he had a good sense of humor,” she says now. “He was good at conversation, very comfortable with himself and not nerdy.” In a photo from her bat mitzvah party in 1977, Emhoff is to her left in an open-collar “Saturday Night Fever” suit. His placement next to her “wasn’t an accident,” she says. They lost touch after the Emhoffs moved away. Now, their circle of friends from Matawan are beside themselves with excitement. “People are saying ‘This is so cool,’” she says. “It’s amazing to think that to us, he was just Doug.”
In the early 1980s, when Doug was in high school, the Emhoffs relocated to Los Angeles after Mike Emhoff, a designer of women’s shoes, got an attractive job offer. It was “a complete change of lifestyle from what I was used to in Jersey,” Emhoff said in a video chat last year with Chasten Buttigieg, husband of then-White-House-contender (and now secretary of transportation) Pete Buttigieg. Emhoff compared it to the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, going to the beach and fun, fun, fun. “It was just pretty incredible,” Emhoff said.
But Emhoff did not let the sybaritic atmosphere engulf him. He went to college at nearby Cal State Northridge and to law school at the University of Southern California, working his way up the chain from a big law firm to his own firm with Jacoby and another lawyer, and then back to big law when the smaller firm proved a tempting acquisition target.
Over the years, Emhoff evolved into a Southern California guy writ large: hard-working yet relaxed, comfortable in his own skin. He married Kerstin Emhoff in 1992, and they had Cole and then Ella, naming them for jazz greats John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. They split in 2008. “Theirs was the model divorce and they are the model divorcees,” says Jacoby. A Minneapolis native of largely Scandinavian descent, Kerstin Emhoff has her own production company, Prettybird, that makes commercials, documentaries and feature films. Like Harris, she is not Jewish.
Emhoff was a single parent of two school-age children when he met Harris through a date arranged by a client, Harris’s best friend Chrisette Hudlin, a public relations consultant, in 2013. The story of the Emhoff-Harris courtship is now in wide circulation. Hudlin told him she knew the perfect woman for him. Emhoff’s initial reaction when he finally understood the mystery woman was California State Attorney General Kamala Harris: “She’s hot.”
An awkward text and voicemail from Emhoff followed, and they went out on their first date in Los Angeles. Harris was surprised how many people in the restaurant recognized him instead of her. “I used to be somebody before I was somebody,” Emhoff joked in a joint interview last year with Harris. The next day, he sent her an email saying he was “too old to play games or hide the ball” and that he wanted to “see if we can make this work.” Harris was nervous about his kids’ reaction, but the first meeting went well. As the Kamala-Doug relationship deepened, Cole and Ella began calling Harris “Momala.” It rhymes with “Kamala” but has the same intonation as the affectionate Yiddish term for mom (or mommy) “Mamele.” The couple married in 2014. “In keeping with our respective Indian and Jewish heritage, I put a flower garland around Doug’s neck, and he stomped on a glass,” Harris wrote in her 2019 book, The Truths We Hold.
Another ingredient in the Kamala-Doug romance is Kerstin Emhoff’s high level of encouragement and support, with no hint of bitterness or animosity. In a profile in Elle last year, Harris said that she and Kerstin are great friends and that she’s “an incredible mother.” Harris also said: “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.” (Kerstin Emhoff attended the presidential inauguration in January along with Ella and Cole.)
Jacoby recalled that early on when Emhoff intimated he was dating someone out of the ordinary, Jacoby thought it might be a movie star. As the state’s highest law-enforcement officer, Harris was close enough to celebrity status for Jacoby and the rest of Emhoff’s legal-world crowd. They watched as their old golf buddy got swept up into Harris’s meteoric rise, from state attorney general to U.S. Senate to vice president of the United States. “When she was state attorney general and then senator, it was ‘Wow, that’s a big deal,’” says Jacoby. “Now it’s an even bigger deal, and he’s living a fishbowl existence. It’s kind of surreal having a friend go through this, watching him on CNN.” Emhoff’s people skills will serve him well in parrying the inevitable political crossfire, Jacoby says. “He’s empathetic, good at understanding how people connect. He’s good on the fly in the courtroom, quick to point out anything that might resonate with the judge or jury.”
In Los Angeles, Emhoff was a high-powered entertainment law specialist focusing on intellectual property—legal protection for creative work. Emhoff’s biggest case involved representing an advertising firm in litigation over the Taco Bell chihuahua, who in the late 1990s lip-synched “Yo Quiero un Taco” in a popular television ad. Two Michigan men went to court arguing the “psycho chihuahua” was their invention and they had not been compensated. Ultimately, the question became who should pay, Taco Bell or the ad firm? Emhoff took on Taco Bell and in 2009, an appeals court ruled that Taco Bell—not Emhoff’s ad-firm client—had to pay damages of $42 million. Other cases have included defending Merck in litigation over Fosamax, used to treat osteoporosis, and international arms broker Dolarian Capital in a dispute over licensing military sales to Afghanistan.
He worked long hours throughout his career, although his friends say this did not preclude attending Lakers games (he is a sports fanatic) and volunteering with Bet Tzedek—a Los Angeles area group offering pro bono legal services to low-income individuals. He played golf at Hillcrest Country Club, LA’s “Jewish” country club. Initially, Emhoff joined because it was close to the office and less expensive for younger lawyers starting out, but he stayed. Even in Southern California, where ethnic lines tend to blur, the tradition of separate Jewish and gentile country clubs persists. “It’s absolutely the last bastion of religious segregation in America,” says former law partner Alex Weingarten, with a laugh. It wasn’t that either type of club barred membership to anyone. Hillcrest was attractive because it was the more haimisch and relaxed of the two clubs, Weingarten says. He describes other area non-Jewish country clubs as “stuffy” and “white shoe.”
Whether he likes it or not, Emhoff’s Judaism will be under a microscope. For at least the next four years, everything he says and does will be eagerly parsed for its Jewish implications. Ella, now 21 and a Brooklyn artist, clothing designer and model, whose career has taken off since the inauguration, raised eyebrows with her statement through a spokesperson to The Forward that she’s “not Jewish.” Her spokesperson later backpedaled, saying, “It’s not something she grew up with.” Cole, 26, does not display any public interest in Judaism either. Much like his father, Cole is a walking brand ambassador for the laid-back LA lifestyle, in a sports coat, blue jeans and untucked white shirt. He works for a production company founded by Brad Pitt, Plan B Entertainment.
Emhoff’s only announced activity in Washington so far is teaching courses at Georgetown Law Center. (“I’ve long wanted to teach and serve the next generation of young lawyers,” Emhoff said in a statement.) As a veteran lawyer, he brings significant skills as a litigator and negotiator to the table. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be President Biden’s lead emissary for Israel and Middle East peace, à la Jared Kushner in the Trump era. Nor is Emhoff likely to be the workaday White House functionary when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has a bone to pick with Biden administration policy. But there is speculation that he could play a role in the re-established White House’s Office of Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, a George W. Bush-administration initiative to connect the White House to charitable and religious groups. It went dormant under President Trump. It is also possible that he could evolve into something of a conduit into the administration’s inner circle on issues of importance to American Jews. At a minimum, he is likely to be in the forefront of White House celebrations of Passover, Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays.
Emhoff has not yet announced the issue or issues that he would like to use his new pulpit to spotlight. First and second ladies in previous administrations have traditionally chosen a few issues to focus on, whether it was Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” anti-drug crusade or Michelle Obama’s focus on healthy eating and exercise. Current First Lady Jill Biden kept her job as a community college English teacher and used it to focus on the role of two-year colleges in job training when she was second lady. She also was an advocate for military families and breast-cancer prevention. Most presidential and vice-presidential spouses try to sidestep controversy. Karen Pence championed military families and spouses, and prevention of suicide by veterans. Like Emhoff, Marilyn Quayle had been a lawyer, in practice with her husband, Vice President Dan Quayle. She had given it up as Quayle’s political career progressed. She had hoped to resume law practice when Quayle became President George H.W. Bush’s vice president, but she was told “no” and ultimately acquiesced. Tipper Gore caused a stir as the wife of Senator Al Gore in the 1980s with her effort to place parental advisory stickers on rock music albums. But after she became second lady in 1993, she concentrated on distribution of international relief supplies and alleviating the stigma of mental illness. Emhoff could follow in their shoes, or possibly rewrite the playbook.
“It would not surprise me if he chooses to engage on issues of importance to the Jewish community, including civil rights, white supremacy, LGBTQ issues, immigration and climate change,” says Nosanchuk, now president and cofounder of New York Jewish Agenda, which promotes activism and involvement of Jews in the New York area. “Jewish issues are American issues,” he says, noting that while Israel is important, it is not the only issue of interest to American Jews.
For now, just being the nation’s first second gentleman may be more than enough—and a model for a new era and generation. Emhoff’s greatest contribution to the Biden presidency may have nothing to do with what issue he works on—or on his Judaism. Kamala Harris is likely to be a hard-working partner in the administration and a possible future presidential nominee. “The most important thing he can do,” Jack Moline says, “is take care of his wife.’’
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