Opinion | Grumpy Jewish Grandpa 2020Why Bernie Sanders speaks to me and my generation.
Senator Bernie Sanders gets a lot of grief for being loud. “You don’t have to yell,” Representative Tim Ryan told the senator during CNN’s second Democratic primary debate. “Bernie Sanders’s yelling is frightening my son,” a former Obama administration official grumbled. “How is Bernie Sanders already this angry, and it’s just his opening statement?” a CNN host wondered on Twitter.
The simple answer? He’s a passionate guy. The better answer? He’s a Brooklyn Jew, and that’s just how we talk.
When somebody asks why I, a 25-year-old millennial, plan on voting for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary—instead of, say, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg—I offer a couple of explanations. Most important, Sanders is the furthest left of all the candidates and has led the campaign for Medicare for All, a platform popular among millennials (but not endorsed by Buttigieg). In one survey of “NextGen” from the University of Chicago, the only candidate as popular as Sanders among adults aged 18-36 was Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps because of his reputation as a cool uncle and his association with President Barack Obama.
I am also, for the record, a huge fan of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who, according to a recent survey, is less popular among young people than Sanders, maybe because as left as her politics are, she still proudly identifies as a “capitalist.”
In 2016, Sanders captured the heart of many a millennial, receiving more primary votes from the under-30 crowd than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. My peers and I were drawn to his anti-establishment message and his proud self-identification as a democratic socialist. A recent Axios poll found that young people have a much more positive understanding of the word “socialism” than previous generations. Explaining his support for Sanders, one teen told Vox, “Neoliberal capitalism has failed…and of the people currently running for president, only Bernie really understands that.”
But I can’t help mentioning, when asked, that I also really want a Jewish president. This often elicits a confused laugh from people who expected me to applaud Sanders’s outrage at the greed of “the top one-tenth of one percent” and his plan to provide free college for all.
I concede, I’m pining for a Jewish commander-in-chief half ironically. I’d never really vote for a candidate because of his or her identity. I doubt any Jewish Bernie Bro would either. But the idea that a member of my demographically small tribe could occupy the Oval Office is fun to think about.
Before Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign, I assumed that having a Jewish president in my lifetime was impossible. But as the zeitgeist shifts, fewer Americans believe it’s extremely important for a candidate to share their religious beliefs, something that has likely given a Jewish politician like Sanders the opportunity to thrive.
In December 2017, I hit the road with Sanders and his staff to attend his weekend-long “Protect Working Families” tour in Ohio and was amazed by how he was able to electrify a crowd so demographically different from him. “We have to guarantee health care to every man, woman and child in this country,” he proclaimed to a crowd of more than 1,000 people of all ages in Akron, his Brooklyn Jewish accent as thick as ever. When the crowd began chanting his name, I thought of my grandfather, also named Bernie, and how extraordinary it was that the people of Ohio—home to a mere two percent of the American Jewish population—were so on board with this explicitly Jewish socialist grandpa and his endearing brand of curmudgeonliness.
Sanders is an ethnic and cultural Jew, but not particularly religious. The way he approaches his identity resonates with me and with many young progressive Jews. He is critical of Israel, specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s expressed support for IfNotNow, an organization of young American Jews who oppose the Occupation.
Sanders doesn’t often reflect on his identity, but on the rare occasions when he does talk about his background, his story is familiar to any Eastern European Jew whose family was broken apart, imprisoned and massacred by the Third Reich. As Sanders tells it, his father came to New York from Poland at 17 “to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. And it was a good thing that he came to this country, because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.” He’s also compared the plight of the Jews in Europe to the genocide of American Indians and oppression of minorities in our country. His socialist leanings ooze with Jewish values; his politics of empathy resonates with the ethic of giving tzedakah.
Perhaps it’ll be another century before the country is able to accept a Jewish president, but as of now, Sanders is polling well and has received the most individual donations of any Democratic candidate. His campaign manager has said his core donors are younger people, who are often low-income. It’s too early to predict how the Democratic primary will shake out. But in the atmosphere of hatred and bigotry that Donald Trump has sown, with anti-Semitism on the rise globally, it’s refreshing to see an unmistakably Jewish politician leading a leftist movement, garnering support from all corners of our largely gentile nation.
Meanwhile, I’ll daydream of a Jewish president, a grumpy Brooklyn grandpa to offer my generation the opportunities his predecessors took from us. I can see it: President Sanders gobbling down a bagel with lox from the White House kitchen before he announces the abolition of student loan debt; cracking open an icy can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray before he signs his landmark universal healthcare bill; an Ashkenazi septuagenarian at the helm of our nation, griping about the chutzpah of the one-tenth of the one percent.
Eve Peyser’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Vice, Rolling Stone and other publications.