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Star Turn

Rahm Emanuel, who will become the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, shied away from discussing his religion during the campaign, but he couldn’t escape Jewish exceptionalism

Rachel Shteir
February 24, 2011
Rahm Emanuel at his victory party Tuesday night.(John Gress/Getty Images)
Rahm Emanuel at his victory party Tuesday night.(John Gress/Getty Images)

With the introduction of touch-screen voting, waiting for election returns isn’t the marathon it used to be. By 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night, it was clear that Rahm Emanuel would take more than 50 percent of the vote and be the next mayor of Chicago.

On the second floor of the Stephen M. Bailey Auditorium of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union Local 130 Hall, a soundtrack cycled such campaign favorites as “Born to Run” and “Beautiful Day.” A man ripped off his bomber jacket to show his T-shirt, with “Southside for Rahm” on the front and “50% + 1” on the back, then he flexed his huge biceps and vamped for cell-phone cameras. Meanwhile, on the first floor, habitués of the VIP room hid behind glass doors guarded solemnly by Rahm’s munchkin sentries.

At 8:30 p.m., Rahm campaign volunteers holding hand-lettered signs announcing the names of their neighborhoods filed into the auditorium and onto the stage as if for an amateur production of a Brecht play. After many people had thanked many other people, Emanuel and his family, which had been campaigning with him over the pre-election weekend, stepped on stage. Rahm stood behind the podium, flanked by his wife, Amy Rule, his three children, and his parents. He hugged and kissed them and made a speech full of the same sound bites he had deployed throughout the campaign.

But it didn’t matter. Not because he had won, but because covering a campaign is like being in a love affair. You act in strange ways. You forgive a lot. You’re sad when it ends.

I’m not talking about the candidate himself. But in love with the race, the process itself. The press, the candidate, the volunteers, are locked into some secret pact. A hushed intimacy, a private language is developed. Truths are shared. Or so you imagine.

Of course you don’t want it to end—who does?—and yet it must, and when it does it’s a downer. All of this is why, I said to myself, I could recite so many of the sound bites Rahm delivered on election night by heart: We cannot live in denial. If you see a fork in the road, take it. Even though it’s cold at an El stop, it’s the warmest place in the world because of Chicagoans’ hearts.

I started writing The Rahm Report because I became obsessed with what the possibility of the first Jewish mayor in Chicago means for Jews in 2011. I was haunted by Chicago’s past and by certain characterizations of the city, such as one made by Joseph Epstein in his recent National Review piece. “Chicago is a city of peasants, or, more precisely, people of peasant background: Poles, Italians, Irish, Greeks, blacks,” he wrote. “Peasants, I think it fair to say, don’t get Jews.”

I found that political commentators and pundits both dismissed Epstein’s contrarian remark and believed that anti-Semitism would not affect the outcome of the campaign and therefore was not worth discussing. But my interest was in what is unseen. It lay in how Emanuel’s Jewishness would be regarded in Chicago, how he would describe it, what was allowed to be said, and what was considered taboo.

Over the course of the campaign, there were both hidden and overt instances of anti-Semitism, but in the last week, two things happened that provide snapshots of its role in the campaign.

First, anti-Semitic fliers were distributed on the El. Then, on February 16, shortly after Carol Moseley Braun, the former senator running for mayor, made a joke that some interpreted as comparing Hitler to Rahm, Gery Chico supporter and union leader Jim Sweeney, a supporter of Gery Chico, another candidate, called Emanuel “nothing but a Wall Street Judas … with a bag of silver when he went and passed NAFTA.” This was similar to what happened in 2002, when Emanuel was running for Senate. After a supporter of Nancy Kaszak, his opponent, called him a “millionaire carpetbagger,” Kaszak lost her lead—and the race—even though she renounced the supporter’s slurs.

In 2011, both Sweeney and Chico’s campaign denied that the remark was anti-Semitic. Sweeney might as well have cited Benedict Arnold, a campaign spokesperson said, reading a dictionary definition of Judas that did not include the word Jew in it. The spokesperson added that Chico has three Jewish children. (His first wife, Jeryl Minow, whom he divorced in 2000, is Jewish.) In an unusually open display of support for the Emanuel campaign, Richard Daley called the comment “a disgrace.” And Emanuel made a public statement that stood out in that it acknowledged his Jewishness at all. “We all know the history of that comment, and we know the history of that reference,” he said. “I have absolute confidence in the people of the City of Chicago and what they’ll see it for and they will not accept it or any of the connotations or the values behind it.”

Yet the few media outlets covering the flap concluded either that calling someone a “Wall Street Judas” was no big deal or that Emanuel’s protest of the remark was a cynical campaign strategy—that it proved that Emanuel was worried about winning the 50 percent he needed to avoid facing a run-off. (At least Capitol Fax spelled anti-Semitism right.)


On Sunday, the day began in the historic Pullman neighborhood at the House of Hope Baptist Church, which is run by Pastor James Meeks, formerly a candidate for mayor.

Pretty 19th-century brick row houses still stand in this neighborhood, which was declared a local and national landmark in the 1970s. Inside the arena-style church, which can seat 10,000, God was being thanked. The choir was wearing white T-shirts with the word “Redeemed” on them in red. The stage was dotted with giant potted ferns. A huge crane with a camera on it swooped around to shoot worshippers who then appeared on an enormous screen. Fliers about redemption were handed out at the door. At one point, the redeemed were asked to stand.

Meeks had invited all the candidates to his congregation that day, and he gave hints as to his preference in his introductions. “The first call I received was Rahm Emanuel. He called me and I said, ‘I know your passion is education. Let’s make this a race about issues and not about each other.’ ” Meeks also noted that Rahm had brought his family to church.

Here, in this Baptist church, Emanuel’s ordinary lackluster speeches were transformed into oration. He began by saying he was not comfortable behind a pulpit. “I grew up in a house where there was separation of church and state,” he said. Then, about the church, he added, “We may course separate waters but our destination is the same.”

Emanuel also described how, the night before his son Zachariah’s bar mitzvah at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, he thought of Rabbi Hillel. “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

There were murmurs of approval and applause.

Emanuel continued: “I do not want to give a political speech at the pulpit.” He talked about dead kids’ eyes and he reaffirmed his commitment to the city. His family—two little girls, one with glasses, a boy with his hands shoved in his pockets, and his wife—was down by the stage. In the parking lot, two SUVs awaited them.

On to lunch at McArthur’s Restaurant on the far west side. Doc Walls was campaigning there. A guy walked around the restaurant chanting, “Say no to Rahm.” The plates of food were enormous. Here was Jesse White, the Illinois Secretary of State, with a two-person security detail. Emanuel, who does not have a security detail, was with Zachariah, his 13-year-old. Emanuel walked around, talking, for example, to three ex-cons concerned about guns—not having them when everyone else in their neighborhood does.

The final event of day was at a campaign field office in a Polish mini mall on the far Northwest side. The signs were all in Polish and English. It suddenly occurred to me that, as far as I can tell, although Rahm Emanuel has been to a lot of churches over the weekend, he has not been to a single synagogue. Or at least, there have been no open press events at synagogues. The campaign declines to answer questions about this.

I zone out, staring at the campaign posters taped to the field office wall. I’ve probably seen them a thousand times. There is a white one, which depicts the silhouette of the city of Chicago. But wait a sec. What’s that underneath Chicago? It’s a six-pointed star! And there are also two white six-pointed stars on the blue poster with “Rahm for mayor” in the middle.

At home, I scour the Internet for images of all the mayoral campaign posters. Del Valle and Braun do not have six-pointed stars on their posters. Chico has stars on his. I look up a few historic posters. Mayor Daley never had any stars.

There’s more: According to Wikipedia, the four six-pointed stars lined up in a row are not the Jewish star. Of course not! They’re part of the Chicago municipal flag. Each star represents a major event in Chicago history, like the 1933 World’s Fair. But the stars on the Chicago municipal flag are thinner—more twinkle, twinkle. Rahm’s star is fatter. It looks like the Jewish stars that you see engraved in stone on old urban synagogues or on headstones in cemeteries. The Board of Commissioners Election Page uses a five-pointed star. I look at Chico’s campaign poster again, since his is the only one I have found with stars. His stars are the twinkle twinkle version.

Pretty soon I’m driving all around town taking pictures of the stars on campaign posters on my cell phone and sending them to my editor. Some are five pointed, some are six pointed. But then I get discouraged. What mystery? What’s the point? The star on Emanuel’s campaign poster is not literally a Jewish star.

And then I get it. The point—ha!—is that it looks like one. And the stars—whether they’re Jewish or just resemble Jewish stars—reflect the whole problem with this campaign. Emanuel has hardly mentioned his Jewishness, except in Baptist churches. His religion is his private affair. Private is private. On the other hand, being Jewish does have a distinct meaning in Chicago, which, after all, has never had a Jewish mayor.

Someone I deeply respect once said to me that Chicago was like New York in the 1950s. She meant that in a good way—she meant that the city had a certain freedom to it, like Greenwich Village after the war. That it was not overly commercialized, like New York. And sometimes I agree with her.

But Greenwich Village after the war was only good for certain people. And at these times, I have felt that my obsession with being Jewish here drags me back to post-World War II, in a bad way. I have felt then that I am part of my parents’ generation, which got excited about Jewish baseball players or Bess Myerson, the Jewish Miss America. And which was filled with anxiety about their own Jewishness. They were tormented by being restricted from clubs and universities. We live in different times. And yet at times I have been startled by my own apparently uncritical attitude toward this tribalism, this kind of us-and-them thinking and paranoia, that belief in Jewish exceptionalism.

I know you’re not supposed to think this way anymore in 2011, especially if you’re Jewish. But I do, sometimes. I think of that moment when Rahm stood in the Baptist church referring to Rabbi Hillel, talking about himself in the most personal way I had heard since the beginning of the campaign. There was something about it that seemed so intimate that it made me want to cry.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.