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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on February 24, 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images
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The Never-Ending Story: Bernie Sanders and His Jewishness

He may not wear a kippah or a tallit, but Sanders is as Jewish as me and lots of you, too

Sara Ivry
February 26, 2016
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on February 24, 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The efforts to pry some chest-thumping affirmation of Jewish pride, or at least a nod to theism, out of Bernie Sanders continue apace, as last night’s Town Hall with Chris Matthews suggested. As the minutes ticked down to the South Carolina Democratic primary, which takes place tomorrow, the Vermont senator answered questions about college tuition, Supreme Court nominees, foreign policy, and the 60s before an audience at his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

Then Matthews asked Sanders about his relationship to Judaism.

Sanders said he’s “very proud of my heritage,” and then elaborated, “what comes to my mind so strongly as a kid growing up in Brooklyn and seeing people with numbers on their wrists…and knowing that my, a good part of my father’s family was killed by the Nazis.”

There has been much hand-wringing over the fact that Sanders is Jewish but often seems to avoid saying so outright when opportunities arise. In an address after winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary earlier this month, Sanders identified his father as a “Polish immigrant,” not a Jewish one, and some voters (myself included) wondered why he chose that seemingly evasive phrasing. Others said he didn’t need to say that he’s a Jew; it’s self-evident, and besides, who cares? Then, in a debate two weeks ago, he said his victory would, like Clinton’s, be historic yet did not say just how.

In the New Republic, writer Joshua Cohen parsed Sanders’ non-specificity thusly: “It takes a village, but a village of rabbis, to interpret this statement, given its semantic sleight—its impersonality (‘somebody’), ambiguity (‘my background,’ ‘my views’), and utter alienation from the self (the climactic third-person ‘Sanders victory’). Who wouldn’t be confused as to whether a Sanders victory would be of ‘some historical accomplishment’ as the triumph of an ideology, or of a Jew?”

As this primary cycle slogs on, I find increasingly that I don’t really care whether he meant Socialist or Jew (or both!). If he meant the latter, I certainly don’t need him to fit into some kind of pugilistic Hebrew Hammer mold. Simply, I don’t want the candidate to contort himself so much that he suffers whiplash from the strain of putting distance between himself and a very word with sectarian connotation.

In any case, it seems increasingly obvious that he does own, even embrace his identity, by which I mean his Jewishness. It’s not the kind so many Jews are used to. He’s not a kippah-wearing, where’s my AIPAC pin kind of guy (though, as we learned this week, he does know the Hebrew blessings over the Hanukkah candles). Good on him. I’ve heard people observe that “he’s not a real Jew. He’s not like Joe Lieberman.” How absurd. Of course he’s a “real Jew.” Real Jews are all sort of people: kippah-wearers, Socialists, atheists, pork-eaters, three-times-a-day-daveners, lobster-avoiders, Trump fans, Hillary fans, you name it.

Recall that Sanders told Jimmy Kimmel last year in reference to his Judaism: “I am who I am and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together, that I think it is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people.”

That seems like Torah to me.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.