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How the Obama-ites Are Redefining Judaism

Much to learn from NYT’s ’20-Somethings’

Ari M. Brostoff
May 03, 2010
The White House Seder.(NYT)
The White House Seder.(NYT)

If you got to the end of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine feature on the “Obama 20-Somethings”—a fawning but, if you like this sort of thing, irresistible portrait of the social lives of the administration’s young staffers—you may have had your suspicions confirmed that, regarding the Jew-factor, this crew is somewhere between the Freedom Riders and Camp Ramah. To wit:

Eric Lesser looked out over the containers of Thai carryout, the bottles of wine and the Shabbat candles. ‘Should we do Shalom Aleichem?’ he asked, and the whole table began singing a warbled but hearty version of the song that welcomes Shabbat. In Lesser’s group house of Obama staff assistants, Friday-night Shabbat dinners have become something of a ritual, a chance to relax and spend a few hours with friends.

Lesser, who is an aide to Obama adviser David Axelrod (ahem), and friends—including housemates Herbie Ziskend, an assistant in the vice president’s office; Jake Levine, a White House energy policy analyst; and Josh Lipsky, who works in the White House visitors’ office—are not the first Jews to congregate near the center of power in Washington, D.C. But what’s striking about the young Obama staffers is how off-handedly they wear their Jewishness—or how off-handedly the New York Times covers their Jewishness, which may amount to the same thing. The word “Jewish” never appears in the article. The Lesser household’s Shabbat dinners are discussed as though they were Christmas or Thanksgiving rituals—interesting in the details, unremarkable for being celebrated in the first place. There is not even a hint that “doing Shabbat” means the staffers are not only all Jews, but all observant Jews.

Further notable is what they do after the meal: Go out for the evening. Hey, it’s Friday!

At the end of every Friday dinner, the tradition is that everyone goes around the table and says something from the past week for which they’re grateful. Over Whole Foods gingerbread and brownies, Lesser looked at his watch and announced, “O.K., we’ve got to do this and then get out of here.” They all had other friends they were trying to see that night.

Rather than connoting religiosity or low-level tribalism (“let’s get away from the goyim for a few hours”), for this crew Shabbat is just a day—or evening—of rest, open to non-Jewish friends as well. It’s not so different, perhaps, from another NYT favorite, the annual Obama administration Seder, likewise a family affair that, unless you take an implausibly cynical reading (why aren’t Chuck Schumer and Abe Foxman invited?), isn’t connected with a larger mission of Jewish outreach. For all the spin in some circles about this administration being unfriendly to Jews, both the junior and senior Obama staffers are making Jewishness seem more and more normal. Maybe that’s what part of the fear is about.

All the Obama 20-Somethings [NYTM]

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.