In early February, an episode of Saturday Night Live included a sketch that offered an unusually prescient example of how religion, politics, and comedy can interact in an election year. The scene opened on the deck of a Titanic-like ship as it struggled to stay afloat, complete with wealthy passengers jostling to abandon the sinking vessel as a Jewish immigrant, portrayed by comedian Larry David, pleaded to be allowed on a life boat.
Suddenly, the famously spry Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) bounded on to the stage, his gangly frame and wide smile sparking a round of applause for the candidate currently vying to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Sanders, playing the role of a fellow Jewish immigrant and dressed in turn-of-the-century attire, proceeded to exchange a few chuckle-inducing lines with David’s character. But the real knee-slapper came near the end, when David asked Sanders’ character his name.
“I am Bernie Sandersowsky, but we’re going to change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish,” Sanders said, his distinctive New York accent even thicker than usual.
“Yeah, that’ll trick ‘em,” David replied, his voice dripping with sardonicism.
The skit was funny, sure — Larry David is nothing if not a pro, and the oft-serious Sanders showcased a surprising knack for comedic timing. But many in the studio audience may have missed the sketch’s cleverly disguised meta-joke: it was a rare instance of Sanders boldly claiming his Jewish heritage, something he has often avoided throughout his campaign for president. Just as Sanders’ character was eager to obscure his Judaism, so too has candidate Sanders repeatedly dodged questions about his faith, so much so that fellow Jews regularly express frustration that he doesn’t say more about the fact that, if elected, the Brooklyn-born Sanders would be the first Jewish president in U.S. history.
Some have claimed his silence on spiritual matters isn’t about an aversion to Judaism per se, but evidence of the senator’s ambivalence about religion in general — indeed, Sanders has described himself as “not very religious.” But such characterizations belie a secret that Sanders is slowly revealing over the course of this election season: he may not be “religious” in the traditional sense, but Bernie Sanders, by his own admission, is both deeply Jewish and a profoundly spiritual man — just not in ways many voters might expect.
A Brooklyn Jew in more ways than one
Sanders’ upbringing is one that could be described — paradoxically but accurately — as both distinctly Jewish and largely irreligious. He was born and raised in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood in the 1940s and ‘50s, where his father sold paint to hardware stores. Although both parents were Jewish, they were reportedly somewhat blasé about the performative aspects of their religion, with Sanders’ father, Eli, visiting synagogue “virtually only on Yom Kippur.”
“They were very pleased to be Jews, but didn’t have a strong belief in God,” Larry Sanders, Bernie’s brother, told the New York Times.
This isn’t to say the Sanders cast off their Jewish identity, however. Both Eli and Dorothy, Sanders’ mother, celebrated Passover with neighbors, and enrolled Sanders in Hebrew and Bible classes at Midwood’s Kingsway Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue. He also held his bar mitzvah there.
But for the working-class family, equally if not more important than Jewish ritual were two concepts that permeate many strains of American Judaism: the legacy of the Holocaust and a tradition of leftist activism. Sanders grew up with stories of Nazi occupied Poland, for instance, where his father lost two brothers and a sister to the German slaughter. Sanders told the New Yorker that after World War II ended, he remembers that his family “got a call in the middle of the night about some relative of my father’s, who was in a displaced-persons camp in Europe someplace.”
The experience had a lasting impact on Sanders, who interpreted the rise of the Third Reich and the subsequent oppression of the Jewish people as a evidence that politics, for better or worse, matters.
“An election in 1932 ended up killing fifty million people around the world,” he said.
This sympathy for the oppressed was also informed by his family’s struggles with money, eventually coalescing into a worldview that championed political activism — a longstanding concept in Judaism. In fact, Sanders seems to have inherited the rabble rousing spirit of his maternal grandfather, who “chafed” during his Orthodox Jewish education but ultimately became a union activist: When Sanders traveled to Israel after college to work on a kibbutz with his first wife in 1963, he ended up at Sha’ar Ha’amakim, a socialist community near Haifa. Sanders was there as a guest of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, which is described as a “socialist, Zionist secular Jewish youth group.”
Sanders may have abandoned some ritualized aspects of the Jewish faith since that time, but some such as Daniel Katz argue that he kept something else: “Yiddish Socialism,” a distinctly Jewish political outlook that was “the dominant political and cultural current among the working-class Jews of Brooklyn where Sanders was born at the end of the Great Depression.”
A “devout” secular Jew
Sociologists and scholars of religion often debate how to categorize so-called “secular Jews,” a title for people who passionately identify as Jewish and participate in religious ceremonies but expresses indifference to a belief in God — or, in some cases, outright reject the notion of a higher being. Complex as it is, the group is rather large: A 2013 Pew research study found that not only do 22 percent of American Jews claim to be “Jews of no religion,” but that 62 percent of Jews overall — regardless of whether or not they identify themselves as “religious” — say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, not religion.
In fact, when American Jews were asked to define the “essential” aspects of being Jewish, only a small minority listed observing Jewish law or even belonging to a Jewish community. Instead, the top three attributes were remembering the Holocaust (73 percent), leading an ethical/moral life (69 percent), and working for justice/equality (56 percent).
In this sense, Bernie Sanders is about as close as one can come to being a “devout” secular Jew. He reportedly does not regularly attend any synagogue, only appearing at temple for funerals or the occasional service. He is also notoriously tight-lipped about his actual religious beliefs — assuming he has any — repeatedly refusing to discuss it with reporters; when the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked him to expound on his Judaism in 2014, Sanders stopped himself mid-sentence, saying “this isn’t a profile.” Sanders also turned down a request from the New York Times to talk about his faith, just as he declined to be interviewed by ThinkProgress for this story. His memoir, Outsider in the House, only mentions Judaism twice.
“[Sanders] hardly wants to talk about [his Jewish] heritage,” Joshua Cohen writes in the New Republic. “Neither in speeches, nor in interviews. When I ask about this reticence—not to Bernie directly, but his support staff—I get nothing, except the sense that about half the staff I’ve met is Jewish.”
As Sanders continues the long battle for the Democratic nomination, requests for him to articulate his understanding of the spiritual have intensified, as have questions over whether or not he is truly “secular.” His answers were initially curt, telling the Christian Science Monitor in June 2015 “I’m proud to be Jewish,” before quickly adding, “I’m not particularly religious.”
But as the campaign wanes on, the bespectacled democratic socialist has become more willing to discuss what he calls his “spirituality” — a world vision that places a high priority on social justice, similar to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s idea that humanity is inextricably linked together “in a single garment of destiny.”
“What my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together, and it’s not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people,” Sanders told talk show host Jimmy Kimmel when asked whether he believes in God. “This is not Judaism. This is what Pope Francis is talking about, that we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more money.”
Sanders’ discomfort discussing his own beliefs — which seem to mirror any number of axioms common during 1960s-era social justice movements — is typically coupled with a deep respect for other religions, especially the leadership of Pope Francis. A former civil rights activist who marched alongside faith leaders during the March on Washington in 1963, Sanders often speaks of religion as a tool for good in the world — even belief systems that challenge him. He turned heads last September when he agreed to speak at Liberty University, a deeply conservative evangelical Christian school better known as a haven for right-wing Republicans than a stage for democratic socialists. When he addressed the roughly 10,000 people in attendance, he acknowledged that he likely disagreed with them on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but insisted that their faith could do good for the world.
“You are a school which … tries to understand the meaning of morality,” Sanders said. “You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings. And I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.”
Sanders, whose wife Jane O'Meara is Catholic, went on to quote liberally from documents penned by Pope Francis, as well as cite scripture that envisioned a more inclusive world.
“I am far from being a perfect human being — but I am motivated by a vision which manifests in all great religions,” he said. “And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. That is the golden rule … It is not very complicated.”
The exact parameters of his faith also remain unclear. Some Jews were irked by his Liberty visit, for instance, because it coincided with Rosh Hashana — a day when many Jews refrain from work (Sanders, to his credit, did participate in the ritual of tashlikh later that day).
Nevertheless, Sanders has referred to his charge to care for one another as his “faith,” and has cited it as a driving force behind his run for president.
“Everybody practices religion in a different way,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a town hall in February. “I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”
“I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels…You know what? That impacts you. That impacts me,” he said. “And I worry very much about a society where people spiritually say, ‘That doesn’t matter to me. I got it. I don’t care about other people.’”
Jewishness as a political liability?
CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Sanders’ skittishness regarding his own religious background evokes mixed reactions from American Jewry. For some, his spiritual nonchalance is something of a triumph, as the voting masses have thus far seemed largely uninterested in the fact that he is currently the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in American history — a major milestone for a nation with a history dotted with anti-Semitism.
Others, however, worry that it’s only a matter of time before political opponents begin attacking Sanders’ Jewish heritage. In a recent op-ed for the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Valerie Lieber of Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue argued that although most Democratic voters are indifferent to Sanders’ Jewishness, the Republican Party would not be so accepting if the senator makes it to the general election.
“As the nomination process continues, it is imperative that Sanders name this background often — because you better believe the Republicans and the conservative press will, if he gets the nomination,” Lieber writes. “Using oblique and coded language in small-town newspapers, and using more direct language on conservative radio, his opponents will call into question both his loyalty to America and his fundamental Americanness.”
It’s certainly true that Donald Trump, the most likely Republican nominee, isn’t shy about tossing around Jewish stereotypes. Speaking to a group of Republican Jews in December, Trump — whose own daughter converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2008 — repeatedly evoked the idea that Jewish people are obsessed with money.
“Is there anyone in this room who doesn't negotiate deals?” Trump said, speaking to a room filled with Jewish people. “Probably more than any room I've ever spoken."
“I’m a negotiator, like you folks,” he added.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is on the rise globally, and U.S. hate groups grew last year for the first time in three years — especially the anti-Jewish Ku Klux Klan. And while anti-Semitism knows no ideological borders, even Republican strategists admit that a disproportionate percentage of Trump’s uniquely hateful base is blatantly anti-Jewish.
Sanders has also caught flack from some Jews for his relatively liberal take on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Unlike some American Jews who take a hardline stance on Israel, Sanders affiliates more with Israel’s left-wing, condemning missile attacks from Palestinians on Israeli citizens but criticizing Israel’s military response as “disproportionate.” He endorsed President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran, something Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed so strongly that he traveled to the United States to personally protest the agreement in an address to U.S. Congress. Sanders was the first Senator to publicly announce that he would boycott the speech, calling it “opportunistic” and later telling National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm that he is “not a great fan of Netanyahu.”
In the long run, however, it may be Sanders’ populist politics — not his Judaism — that could end up costing him votes. In June 2015 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans said they would support a Jewish candidate for president, but only 47 percent said they would support a socialist — the least supported category on the list.
But for Sanders, the two subjects — his concept of faith and his political fight for justice — are not so easily decoupled. In November 2015, a National Public Radio reporter began asking Sanders about an incident in which he brought a young Muslim woman onstage with him as he vowed to speak out against Islamophobia. As the reporter concluded her question, she suddenly switched gears, inquiring what the incident has to do with Sanders’ Judaism.
“What I heard in [in the voice of the Muslim woman] was fear,” he said. “I don't want to see kids in America being scared because they're hearing people on television and the radio saying these really ugly xenophobic and racist things. This is the year 2015. We have come a long, long way as a nation. We've elected an African American as president.”
Sanders then pulled up his sleeve and pointed to his bare forearm, recalling a time when Jews were tattooed with identification numbers during the Holocaust.
“All of that does relate very much to the fact that I am Jewish,” he said.
This article is part of our ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates. You can find our first entry, which chronicles Gov. Scott Walker’s questionable claims to evangelicalism, here. Check out other other posts on the faith of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Martin O’Malley.