Today, the election of Eric Garcetti as Los Angeles’ new mayor is being widely reported. Garcetti will be the city’s first Jewish mayor as well as the city’s youngest mayor in over a century. What this also means is that when Garcetti is sworn in on July 1, American Jews will be able to brag (or smile nervously) that the three biggest cities in the United States now have Jewish mayors.
That news, coupled with the announcement that Anthony Weiner is now pursuing one of his lifelong dreams by entering the race to replace Michael Bloomberg in Gracie Mansion, means that should Weiner somehow win, the Jewish mayoral triumvirate will hold until 2015, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces re-election. (For those interested, my hometown of Houston is the country’s fourth-biggest city. While Houston may have broken ground by electing Annise Parker, its first openly gay mayor in 2010, I think it’s safe to say we should be happy with New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.)
These developments dovetail nicely with a story Jonathan Chait wrote earlier today in New York Magazine. Looking at Vice President Joe Biden’s improvised Jewish Heritage Month speech, Chait got a little nervous that Biden was giving anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists grist for their mills with his effusive praise for Jewish power and achievement in America. Here’s some of what Biden said:
“You make up 11 percent of the seats in the United States Congress. You make up one-third of all Nobel laureates,” he said. “So many notions that are embraced by this nation that particularly emanate from over 5,000 years of Jewish history, tradition and culture: independence, individualism, fairness, decency, justice, charity. These are all as you say, as I learned early on as a Catholic being educated by my friends, this tzedakah.”
“The embrace of immigration” is part of that, as is the involvement of Jews in social justice movements.
“You can’t talk about the civil rights movement in this country without talking about Jewish freedom riders and Jack Greenberg,” he said, telling a story about seeing a group of Jewish activists at a segregated movie theater in Delaware. “You can’t talk about the women’s movement without talking about Betty Friedan” or American advances in science and technology without mentioning Einstein and Carl Sagan, or music and Gershwin, Bob Dylan and “so, so, so many other people.”
Biden didn’t stop there.
Think behind of all that, I bet you 85 percent of those changes, whether it’s in Hollywood or social media are a consequence of Jewish leaders in the industry. The influence is immense, the influence is immense. And, I might add, it is all to the good,” he said.
Jews have also been key to the evolution of American jurisprudence, he continued, namedropping Brandeis, Fortas, Frankfurter, Cardozo, Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagan. “You literally can’t. You can’t talk about the recognition of … rights in the Constitution without looking at these incredible jurists that we’ve had.”
Here’s what Chait, who imagined the crowd going from “kvelling to shvitzing,” had to say about it:
Biden’s intentions here are obviously as friendly as can be, but the execution is awkward. The civil rights movement today is so widely sanctified that mentioning the disproportionate Jewish role in it is in the same category as mentioning Einstein, Jonas Salk, and so on — look at all these wonderful things the Jews have helped bring us. Because Biden is liberal, it feels natural to segue into the Jewish role in the gay civil rights movement. (And I share his belief that popular culture has played an enormous and underappreciated role in promoting gay civil rights, among other liberal causes.)
Also, and this is a small thing, when you’re pulling numbers completely out of your ass, you should probably round them off to the tens digit rather than the fives. (Jews are 85 percent responsible for changing cultural attitudes toward gays? Ninety percent felt too high, 80 percent not high enough?)
For what it’s worth, I am 95% comfortable with Biden’s speech and 105% happy for Eric Garcetti. I am also 85% wishful that Thomas Carcetti–the fictitious Baltimore mayor in The Wire–were a Jewish character.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.