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Life of the Party

The host of Obama’s second inaugural party, Sen. Charles Schumer, is America’s lovable Jewish Uncle Leo

Rachel Shukert
January 24, 2013
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, January 21, 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, January 21, 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

My dear congregation, you may notice I am sermonizing to you a little earlier than usual this week. This is because I want to talk to you about something that happened on Monday, before Suri Cruise gets a haircut or Kim Kardashian farts in public and we forget all about it. On Monday, on what seemed like an unnervingly warm day for the end of January, we celebrated the second inauguration of our president.

Michelle had flattering new bangs, Malia and Sasha were as usual adorable. Beyoncé wore a full length evening gown and a cool $1.8 million in matched emeralds to lip sync “The Star Spangled Banner,” while Kelly Clarkson, in a triumph of placement through what sounded like a possible cold, appeared to sing the hell out of some parody lyrics to the British national anthem. On a more serious and meaningful note, there was President Barack Hussein Obama delivering the kind of full-throated, unapologetic endorsement of liberal policies and ideals that if you are me, made you weep with joy, and if you are Sen. Mitch McConnell will send you scrambling to the hills of South Dakota or wherever—until you realize that nobody picks up the trash in a libertarian “community” and you come crawling back to the rest of us Marxists with mail delivery.

And if, in a country with legal separation of church and state, all the mentions of Jesus in the various invocations and rousing choral interpretations of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!” started to feel, well, a little goyish for you, you could always take a deep breath and look over to the other nice Jewish boy on the platform—the beaming gentleman from New York and my favorite senator: Charles Schumer.

Because he was everywhere. Chairman of the inaugural committee and master of ceremonies. Fulsomely introducing each platinum-selling recording (and in someone’s case, recorded) artist, and ogling with convincing admiration when they had finished—or at least, when Clarkson had finished. From managing to work in references to his beloved home state of New York at every turn (the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir! The wine from the Finger Lakes! Did I mention this painting behind me is of Niagara Falls?) to hilariously photo-bombing the official photos of the president taking the oath of office, Schumer’s was a constant, gleeful presence—equal parts determinedly energetic camp director kicking off the annual Color Wars (not a bad analogy for our current political process, when you think about it) and nachesfilled bat mitzvah dad who can’t help himself from dancing along to “Gangnam Style” even though his daughter begged him not to do anything to embarrass her. In fact, I’ll go one further: On Jan. 21, 2013, Chuck Schumer proved himself to be America’s Uncle Leo, Jerry’s avuncular relative on Seinfeld. Barry! Hello! (I’ll let you know if I have a nightmare where he’s got that tattooed on his knuckles. I had Indian food late last night; it’s likely.)

Kidding aside, maybe it was seeing him up there on the beautifully curated It’s a Small World After All inaugural platform—and indeed, in the larger scheme of diversity that makes the Obama coalition so genuinely moving and so genuinely American—that to me, Schumer seemed emblematic of the Jewish-American experience and our unique place in the tapestry of the country. Since the vast wave of Jewish immigrants and their descendants began to make their massive contributions to American pop culture at the beginning of the 20th century, Jews, with the perspective that only centuries of suffering can give you, have long functioned as kind of color commentators on American life—I and others have written at length about how the base sensibility of American comedy is primarily a Jewish one. As Jews began to rise to positions of real power, the wisecracks became imbued with gravitas, the ability to get things done, or further yet, shape circumstances to one’s own worldview. It’s a heady combination, one that can be dazzlingly effective. As Henry Kissinger once said, power is an aphrodisiac, but power mixed with a sense of humor? Forget about it.

But it can also lead to a kind of myopia, a kind of blinkered worldview that puts one’s own interests and preferences first, for no other reason than because you can (and the kind that leaves you looking frantically for another Jew anytime someone tangentially mentions Jesus). That’s why it was so great to see Schumer up there, mugging for the camera, surrounded by civil rights icons like Myrlie Evers-Williams and trailblazers like Richard Blanco—our first Latino, and first openly gay, poet laureate.

E pluribus unum, reads the great Seal on the platform. Out of many, one. But we are also just one voice out of many, some of whom are being heard for the first time. There’s room for everyone at the table, and we’ll all eat better for it.

Now, have another helping of strudel. The apples are from the Hudson Valley.


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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.