It was 1990, I was 13, and I was about to get a bar mitzvah in the world of Jewish politics.
Growing up in Western Wisconsin, we followed Minnesota news, especially when that news was of a rumpled college professor cum Senatorial candidate who was as erudite as my uncle, funny as my mother, hyper as me, J, and as unabashedly Midwestern liberal as well, my entire family.
One of us, Paul Wellstone, was running for higher office, and we were enthused. The one of us was only heightened by the Jewishness he shared with my mother, my sisters, and me. His opponent Rudy Boschwitz was Jewish, and a relatively liberal Republican, but it was clear who the homeboy was. We cheered from our ringside seat in the rolling hills, wishing there was voting reciprocity between Minnesota and Wisconsin like there is for college tuition.
It was going to go down as a wild one, complete with unsubstantiated allegations over in the gubernatorial race of a candidate skinny dipping with teenage girls and Wellstone’s hilarious ads (designed by a friend of my cousin, they had things like Wellstone talking at high speed because he couldn’t afford longer commercials and another one where babies tried to write checks to Rudy Boschwitz).
But the drama that the biggest impression on my teenage self was something called the “Jewish letter.”
It was an open letter to the Jewish community from Rudy Boschwitz.
I don’t think I ever read the actual text, but it essentially called on his coreligionists to vote for the “real Jew” in the race. The evidence against Wellstone’s Real Jewishness was twofold. First, he had married a Shiksa (non Jewish woman, the amazing Sheila a lifelong opponent of domestic violence) while Rudy had held singles gatherings for Jews to increase their odds of hooking up with a member of the tribe. And two, Wellstone had supported recognition of the PLO and palled around with Jesse Jackson.
I was horrified.
First of all, my dad who converted seven years later, had not yet done so, so that was my family Rudy was attacking as unreal in our Jewishness.
Second of all, I had a soft spot for Jesse Jackson because of our shared first name. He definitely had my vote starting in 1984; the first election I can remember. His use of another, derogatory name in calling New York City Hymietown seemed quite forgivable to me. I had never been called a hymie, the anti-Semites I dealt with were far too ignorant to know such a quaint slur.
As for the meeting with the PLO, I knew vaguely that there was an Intifada going on and that everyone was identifying me with the soldiers, and that I identified with the stone throwing kids, though I was far too wussy to throw much on anything. If Paul and Jesse could put a stop to that, it was fine with me.
Thankfully, the Jewish letter went over about as well with the Minnesota Jews as with me. It was cited as one of the factors in Paul’s miraculous victory. The world seemed a magical place, between that and the Twins World Series victory the following year, I cannot tell you which was a bigger deal at the time. Two years later, Paul gloated and pogoed to the victory of our Wisconsin progressive Jew, Russ Feingold.
I became more of a man, or at least an older one.
The Jewish letter was the moment I saw both how uptight my community elders were about two things that were a basic fact of my existence: recognizing Palestinians and having relationships with non-Jews. I also saw that the community could ignore the nagging of its elders and do the principled thing.
Since then, I have been frustrated.
Both Feingold and Wellstone learned to vote like U.S. Senators whenever Israel came up, which is to say with none of the creativity or morality they had brought to their campaigns. And now neither are in the Senate anymore, the victims of a fatal plane crash and a suicidal Republican wave election. Another one-of-us-except-for-on-Israel Jew, Al Franken is an improbable Senator.
And while Rudy has been defeated, there are no elections for Jewish community leaders. The current bunch is pretty much exactly the same as the old bunch, and every bit as kneejerk when it comes to my issues.
But I have learned you don’t have to wait for leaders to leave or be defeated, you find your own.
And you become one.
I have attended Jews of all Hues, a gathering for Jews from interfaith families.
And I have joined Jewish Voice for Peace, which has a youth wing Young, Jewish, and Proud that stood up to both Israel’s Prime Minister and the leaders of the American Jewish community. We stand for those hyper, articulate, and compassionate Jewish values of my childhood. And while Paul might not have signed on at YoungJewishProud.org, I think he would still be proud of me.
(photo: Ross Hammsersley)