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What Does Bernie’s Success Mean for the Jews? Not Much.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Like every other human being, I am susceptible to the pleasures of tribalism, so that was me performing a discrete fist-pump when a Brooklyn-bred guy named Bernie became the first of my fellow Yids to win a presidential primary. And I wasn’t the only one. We are, if not always the People of the Book, at least one of the many Peoples of Facebook, where I immediately saw comments and links to articles parsing what Sanders’s New Hampshire victory Means For The Jews.

Many of the articles compared Sanders to Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. “Lieberman already broke the Jewish glass ceiling,” Daniel Treiman wrote for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and he “was a very Jewish candidate.” Ami Eden, also in JTA, wrote that “Lieberman wore his Judaism like a yarmulke … Sanders, not so much.” In Tablet, Michael A. Cohen made the same comparison. “One friend said to me that while he felt no satisfaction in Joe Lieberman getting the VP nod in 2000 it’s different with Sanders,” Cohen wrote. “‘I do feel some pride in Sanders’s success,’ he told me. ‘He’s my kind of Jew [and] I have been surprised and delighted that an unapologetically lefty, East Coast Jew has resonated so broadly.’” 

By celebrating the parallel successes of two very different kinds of Jews, these essays suggest that Jews have arrived, politically. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was on a major national ticket that won the popular vote; Sanders, who, as Gal Beckerman noted Monday in the Timesspent last Rosh Hashana not in synagogue but “campaigning, at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, no less,” just won a big primary in a state with very few Jews, and could get the Democratic nomination. If Jews as varied as Lieberman and Sanders can both play in the show, then we can agree that Jews—who are also over-represented, compared to their percentage of the population, in the House and Senate—are electable.

But while it’s true that in America today, women and men of nearly all racial, ethnic, and religious identities can win high office, I don’t think Jews or others should be celebrating yet. The real test of Americans’ tolerance, of our embrace of minority cultures, is whether minorities can win office while being unapologetic, proud, visible, and obvious about their minority identities. And on that count, I don’t think the United States is even close. Christians still have a prerogative to be openly, even aggressively religious that is not afforded to the rest of us, if we want votes.

Optimistic Jews (the kind of Jew I usually am) have fallen prey to what we might call the Lieberman Error. It’s true that Lieberman identifies as Orthodox, and I have no reason to doubt his keeping of the Sabbath, and kosher laws, and all the rest. But to most Americans, his religiosity was more or less theoretical. He talked about it rarely, and he looked and sounded like what he was: a Northeastern, Ivy-educated lawyer in a suit. None of the markers of observant Judaism, which might make some voters think of him as other, were visible. 

Lieberman was not of either the Hasidic or Lithuanian/ultra-Orthodox persuasions, so there’s no reason that he would have been in any of their black-hatted uniforms. But many Modern Orthodox Jews like Lieberman wear a yarmulke every day. As far as I can tell, Lieberman never does, except inside a synagogue, out of cameras’ view. It’s surprising how hard it is to find a photograph of Lieberman in a yarmulke except when he visited Jerusalem’s wailing wall. Internet hive, please prove me wrong, but when I go on Google I get more pictures of Barack Obama and John McCain in yarmulkes than I do of Joe Lieberman. And what about Lieberman in a tallis, the traditional prayer shawl? I can’t find a single picture of Lieberman so garbed. 

It should be a bit harder to get a picture of Lieberman with the tiny prayer boxes known as tefillin strapped to his head and arm, but it shouldn’t be impossible—there’s no prohibition of taking pictures of people wearing tefillin, which observant male Jews (and some women) do six mornings a week. Yet as far as I can tell, no such picture exists of Lieberman.

I have no idea if Lieberman was intentionally careful never to be photographed in obviously Jewish accessories, any more than I know if Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison has intentionally avoided the full beard, long robe (thawb), or small hat (kufi) worn by many observant Muslim men. I have no idea how Mitt Romney feels about his Mormon undergarments, about which he was always reluctant to speak. But I am certain that it helped all three men’s electoral prospects that they look like prosperous, preppy Americans. 

We have to ask: What if Lieberman wore a yarmulke, and his wife had covered her head with a scarf or wig? What if Ellison wore Muslim garb and he were married to a hijabi, a woman who covered her head? (Kim Ellison, his ex-wife, is not a Muslim.) When will we have a president who looks visibly Amish or Hasidic? Are we ready to elect the Jews who swing chickens above their heads in the days before Yom Kippur? The animal-sacrificing practitioners of Santeria? The turban-wearing, sword-carrying Sikhs? Why should only Christians get to be publicly bizarre in accordance with their faith? 

Christians, by contrast, are fully at liberty to look Christian—nobody would blink if one wore a cross or crucifix on a necklace, and Catholics like Joe Biden or Rick Santorum have their foreheads ashed on Ash Wednesday. Not only can they look Christian, they can sound Christian too. They can sing about their Christianity, as when the Pentecostal attorney general, John Ashcroft, wrote and badly sang that bizarre patriotic/Christian mash-up hymn, and they can talk about it—former congressman Floyd H. Flake is at liberty to preach with the rolling cadences of the black church. Senator Ted Cruz can even hold a news conference at his home church. What’s more, they can be Catholic and evangelical Protestant at once, like Senator Marco Rubio. The more kinds of Christian, the better!

Not only do Jewish politicians avoid looking or dressing in ways that suggest they’re Jewish, but they avoid talking about their faith. Lieberman never gave a major talk that explained how his Judaism gave him an outlook different from a Christian’s. For Sanders, the honest Jewish talk would be different, but no less difficult: He could discuss how he left ritual observance behind, decided not to go to synagogue, married out of the faith. He could discuss how he, as a Jew, plans to handle the charges of dual loyalty if he praises Israel, or of self-loathing if he criticizes Israel. The kind of discussion that Barack Obama, when circumstances demanded it, has had about race—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—is what I’d love to hear from a Jewish politician about Judaism.

I am grateful that we live in a country where Christians can be publicly Christian. But let’s admit that, Lieberman notwithstanding, being publicly “out,” in the most chutzpadik sense, is not a privilege that Jews seem to think they have earned—or at least not when they take the national stage. Sanders seems to have warm feelings about his heritage, which came out when he was more of a local politician. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he worked with Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews to facilitate the public display of a menorah, and wore a yarmulke for its lighting. And he used to speak about his time in Israel, where he (briefly) partook in that sadly attenuated rite of passage for lefty Jews, work on a kibbutz. But such talk is long gone. 

I wonder if Jews of Lieberman’s and Sanders’s generation have lingering fears that their Judaism could hurt them with voters in places like Iowa. They grew up in an era when Jews always worried about how they were seen; my mother remembers her mother always worrying aloud, when hearing news reports of some major criminal being caught, “Oh, thank goodness he’s not one of ours.” (Come to think of it, I have that reaction, and I was born in 1974.) Maybe Sanders felt he could be a little more Jewish in Burlington, where he knew most of his voters, than in Iowa. Maybe Lieberman, courting votes among the Wasps of Greenwich, never felt that safe at all. 

But the time is overdue for some out and proud Jews on the national stage. After all, in a Gallup poll from last June, 91 percent of voters polled said they’d vote for a well-qualified Jewish candidate from their party—a number higher than for gays and lesbians, Muslims, even evangelical Christians (!). What group ranked lowest, below even atheists? Socialists. If Bernie can be out about his far-left politics, he should be flying his tallis like a cape.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that, in the pre–Yom Kippur ritual of Kapparot, some Orthodox Jews kill chickens by swinging them over their heads. The chickens are not butchered until afterward.