Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has enjoyed a raft of encouraging headlines of late. The presidential candidate’s poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire have gained ground on frontrunner Hillary Clinton; pundits declared a Sanders victory in the latest debate; and in the Clinton camp, staffers appear to be hunkering down for an unanticipated fight for the nomination. But as his campaign picks up steam, Sanders’ relationship to his Judaism remains mostly undiscussed.
In Why Bernie Sanders Matters, Harry Jaffe, Washingtonian‘s editor at large, examines Sanders’ past and what his candidacy means for the American political landscape. Moment spoke to Jaffe about Sanders’ childhood in Brooklyn, his time on an Israeli kibbutz, his appeal to Jewish voters and whether there’s a public dialogue soon to be had about the prospect of our first Jewish president.
I prefer it. It gives me more freedom to write the story that I find—talking to his friends and talking to his neighbors and talking to people who worked with him. I find it very liberating.
There are various ways of working with somebody on a book—we could’ve written it together, he could’ve approved stuff. If it was just a straightforward interview, I guess that it might have helped out. But that also requires, then, a certain responsibility that I have to him. And if he says, oh, I’m not dealing with you, then—as long as I’m satisfied that it’s accurate and true, that’s all it takes.
It seems like, at least in terms of media coverage, the tide has pretty quickly turned in his favor in the last week or so. He’s ahead in a few polls; he was the decisive winner in the most recent debate. What changed?
Well, Bernie didn’t change. I think that you had a whole political chattering class system inside the Beltway that was so certain that Hillary Clinton was going to be the nominee that they were kind of just drumming their fingers until the general election. Who knew who Bernie Sanders was? And who would have thought that he would mount a credible campaign for the White House? I mean, he’s from this dinky state, he’s a socialist, he’s 74 years old, he’s Jewish—that’s like four strikes against you right there. I think it’s been a revelation and a shock to a lot of people that he has an audience and he has a message that’s attracting a lot of interest. And so the press is kind of slapping itself in the face, having missed the boat.
Tell me about his Jewish background and upbringing.
I think that you have to first consider the neighborhood where he was raised was a Jewish ghetto, almost like a shtetl. This was a very, very particular part of Brooklyn—it was on the edge of Flatbush, and it was 80 percent Jewish. Jewish grocery stores, kosher markets, synagogues, and Dubrow’s was the cafeteria/luncheonette that everybody went to. It was a very small, tightly knit community.
As far as his religious upbringing, I don’t think it was very important or deep. He was bar mitzvah, but I don’t think that they had Shabbat dinners. It sounded to me from my reporting that he was more of a cultural Jew. He and his older brother, Larry, drew from the bible the lessons, the morality, the Ten Commandments, as opposed to the practice of Judaism and the Talmud. He was not in an observant household whatsoever.
He has said often that the biggest influence was not that he was Jewish but that his father’s family was killed in the Holocaust. And you don’t have to be Jewish to have had your family killed in the Holocaust. You can be Catholic, you can be a gypsy. But it was mostly Jews. And that had a huge impact on him growing up.
He grew up in a time when it wasn’t so easy to be an American Jew. Did that present any hardships for him?
I think that it’s safe to say that there was anti-Semitism in the neighboring communities—that in larger New York, Jews were not in those years accepted beyond their community. Whether Bernie Sanders specifically was the victim of anti-Semitism, I don’t know. He never talks about it. I couldn’t find any specific examples, but I know that his friends, the people that he went to school with, his close friends, told me that there was a definite sense of the oppressiveness of the other ethnic neighborhoods—that you would get beat up if you went to an Italian neighborhood or pushed around if you went to an Irish neighborhood. But I think that was just the times, if you will. I think that there was just much more institutional anti-Semitism. But was that a major factor of Sanders’ life? I don’t think so. I think it was just kind of in the air.
Absolutely. I think that part and parcel of Brooklyn, Flatbush, Sheepshead Bay back in the 50s and 60s was a very, very heavy leftist overlay. There were Trotskyites, there were communists, there were socialists. Most kinds of far-left politics came from Europe, came from Russia, came from Germany, came from Lithuania. In Europe in the 30s, 40s, 50s, there was a lot of communism being practiced and being debated, and that came to Brooklyn with the Jews.
There’s been something of a quest to figure out what kibbutz he lived on in Israel in 1964. Did you make any headway?
I did not go to Israel and look around for it. I did ask his friends and searched the literature, and it’s a mystery. But what we do know is that it had a great impact on him. And I think that it had a very, very important influence on Sanders in two ways. One, the rural, agricultural, agrarian society made a huge impression on him, and the fact that people in the community could provide for themselves and cooperate and share, that had a huge impact on him. And there also was a political sense of socialism in those kibbutzim early on. I think that both of those factors made an impression on him. The fact that he went pretty much right from a kibbutz to Vermont—you’d have a hard time telling me that there wasn’t a relationship between the kibbutz life in Israel that he liked so much and the communal life in Vermont. They’re very similar.
You write in the book that whether Sanders developed a love of Judaism is an open question.
Bernard Sanders is not a practicing Jew in any way, shape or form. He’s not an observant Jew in any way, shape or form. He married a Catholic woman. I would seriously doubt that he raised his one natural son as a Jew. Whether his understanding of God emanates from his Judaism, whether he believes in God at all, I really don’t know; he never talks about it. It’s an open question whether Bernie Sanders believes in God. His wife said to me that they spiritually are in line with the Judeo-Christian thinking, but that’s kind of a wide open field.
I think that the person who is most connected to [Sanders’] current relationship to Judaism is Richard Sugarman. Sugarman is a Jewish scholar, a religious scholar and philosopher who he met in 1976 on a train from Brooklyn to Vermont. They were both young kids trying to start lives in Vermont, and they bonded and they stayed close. Sugarman was crucial in many ways and at important times. Bernie Sanders went to seders at Sugarman’s house.
I did specifically ask Sugarman about Sanders’ approach to Judaism. And he gave me this line. He said, “I would call him an uncertain agnostic.” He’s not even sure he’s agnostic.
You write a little about Sanders’ views on Israel— that in his younger years, he occasionally supported the idea that establishing a Palestinian state might require withholding U.S. military aid. Do you have a sense of what a Sanders presidency would mean for Israel?
From what I know, he wouldn’t do anything dramatic. But he wouldn’t kowtow to the Jews. I don’t think that he would be in the thrall of AIPAC. This is a guy who has run against the grain, against the elite, against the powerful. And AIPAC has to be one of the more powerful forces in Washington, in the country. I think that Sanders wouldn’t really care. I think that he would do what he thought was right, and what he thinks is right has to do with fair treatment of the Palestinians.
Despite the Larry David jokes, Sanders’ Jewishness is not something that is as widely discussed as one might expect. Why?
I think that his Jewishness has not been examined because he is still thought of by a lot of people as being, you know, Bernie who’s going to flame out. I think that the closer he gets to “Uh oh, this guy could be the nominee,” then it’s going to be “Uh oh, this guy’s Jewish. Wait a second.” But he has so many other things. Before you get to the fact that he’s Jewish, he’s 74, he’s a socialist, he’s from Brooklyn. I know that Barack Obama’s African American, but for God’s sake, the guy went to Harvard, and comes across as a hail-fellow well met, he’s got a beautiful wife, lovely children. Sanders is so different. And it’s almost like—oh, yeah, he’s Jewish, too. It matters less because he’s so different in so many other ways.
Do you think that the lack of discussion about his Judaism will change if he’s the nominee?
Do you think there would be consternation over it?
A September poll by the American Jewish Committee found that about 40 percent of Jewish voters favored Hillary Clinton to Sanders’ 18 percent. Why aren’t more Jews rallying behind Sanders?
Is he interested in capturing the Jewish vote?
I don’t think so. I don’t think it matters to him.
Do you think that if he were more open about his Judaism it would make a difference?
I don’t think so, because I think that he would be making it up. Bernie Sanders doesn’t make stuff up, and he is authentic to a fault, and he’s not going to go to a synagogue and kiss the ring of a rabbi just to get a few Jewish votes. It’s against his true persona.
So far in the race, his no-nonsense focus on the issues seems to have served him well. Is there going to be a point when voters demand to know who Bernie Sanders is?
As late as 2013, Sanders was still telling reporters he was 99 percent sure he wouldn’t run. What happened?
Well, he always wanted to run for the White House. He’s a bit of a megalomaniac. He wants to run the world. He’s on a mission to make the world better for the less fortunate. Maybe it’s a little Mother Teresa. I think that he’s wanted to run since the fall of 2013. It’s his wife who needed to be convinced.
How do you think he’s going to fare in the months to come?
I don’t know whether he’s going to be the nominee. My sense is that he has raised enough money and will continue to raise enough money to stay in the race. He’s going to be a factor at some level until the convention, maybe beyond. That’s first. Secondly, I think that he will continue to try and create a progressive, populist movement in this country. Sanders is not somebody who you have to wonder—well, really, what does he mean by that? He says he wants to start a revolution, he means it. He means it! I mean, he believes it. He wants to have a movement. And so he’s not going to stop. He’s going to be in the Senate for four more years, and I think you’re going to see a lot of Sanders doing a lot of TV if he doesn’t get elected.
You think he’ll stay in the public eye.
Oh, God, yes. And I’m not just saying that because I wrote a book about him.
I don’t know whether he gets this from being Jewish or not, but he is incredibly cheap. He’s just very, very frugal. People laugh about the fact that he flies coach and he shows up to campaign events in a rented Ford Fiesta. But that’s because he doesn’t really like to spend money. My grandmother was like that. She would shop around for the cheapest tomatoes in Philadelphia. I don’t know whether it’s a cultural trait or what, but he’s not interested in spending money unless he has to, which means that he’s going to raise money and hang on to it.
It says as much about Vermonters as it does about Bernie Sanders. Vermont has a lot of radical lefitsts, and Sanders comes from that, but he’s not that anymore. I think he’s moved to the middle now. He’s not a hardcore leftist when it comes to Israel. He’s not at all interested in BDS. He would be against that. But those people in Vermont, in the town meeting, that’s what they were all about. So he’s not that far left. If he were 18, he would be. But he’s not 18 anymore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.