The word “Jewish” does not appear in Sunday’s mammoth New York Times profile of Nancy Brinker, the founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which is one of the country’s top groups for any disease. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in observance of which NFL players and coaches wear pink. (Two years ago, the Times story on this concerned Tanya Snyder, the wife of Washington Redskins owner Daniel and a breast cancer survivor.) The article depicts Brinker’s relentless, unapologetic advocacy. “It’s a democratization of a disease,” Brinker says.
“Democratization,” because breast cancer itself is not democratic. Though of course not even close to an exclusively Jewish issue, it is a disproportionately Jewish one. One in 40 women of Ashkenazic descent has a genetic mutation that greatly increases her chance of getting breast cancer, as a result of which Ashkenazic women are subject to stricter screening standards and are disproportionately afflicted with the illness. Susan G. Komen, Brinker’s sister, certainly did not die of breast cancer because she was Jewish, and nor did Brinker get it, too (her sister inspired the foundation but, according to Wikipedia, she herself is a survivor, a fact you don’t find in her official biographies). However, it isn’t pure chance that by far the nation’s leading breast cancer foundation was inspired and founded by two sisters in Illinois born to the name Goodman. (Interestingly, one of the foundation’s most controversial stances is its emphasis on screenings, which many say are unnecessary for much of the population but are more frequently recommended, again, for women of Ashkenazic descent.)
I remember, before my bar mitzvah, our rabbi telling my Hebrew School class that we should not only consider donating a portion of the gifts we would receive to charities, but that we should especially emphasize Jewish charities—because, he said, nobody other than Jews is going to give to them. Brinker, it seems, has happened upon the corollary to this: where a cause affects Jews more than other groups, you can “democratize” the cause and leverage a much larger constituency to help your comparatively small group. It’s a useful lesson, I imagine, for other ethnic groups, and an interesting paradigm through which to view the ways Jews have made other issues of special importance to them—like the Jewish state—relevant to other communities.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.