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‘Focus’ on Bloomberg’s Jewishness

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As part of its coverage over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque," The Wall Street Journal reports on on New York Michael Bloomberg’s Jewish background:

Religion has long played an important role in the life of Michael Bloomberg’s mother, Charlotte, now 101 years old, but Judaism never took a strong hold in the New York mayor’s own life, his advisers and other observers say. He believes in God, but is more likely to be found at church for a political event than temple for worship. He grew up among very few Jews in Medford, Mass., but his family maintained some traditions, such as a kosher kitchen and Hebrew school.

As an adult, the mayor has eschewed many of the traditions and customs of Judaism, but what his religion — and its history of persecution — has most
instilled within him is a belief that all faiths must be tolerated.

These days, the mayor, 68 years old, is more likely to show up in church, delivering a message about the city, than be spotted at Temple Emanu-El, the Upper East Side Reform synagogue to which he belongs. The mayor does make a point of going to services for the High Holidays, which take place next month, and he is said to get in trouble with his sister, Marjorie, if he doesn’t arrive on time for Passover seder.

The mayor had a bar mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage, but neither of his two daughters had bat mitzvahs. The mayor’s ex-wife, Susan Bloomberg, whose mother was Jewish, "kind of raised us to be Church of England," though the family celebrated the major Jewish holidays, the mayor’s youngest daughter, Georgina, said in a 2009 biography of Mr. Bloomberg. The mayor’s longtime companion, Diana Taylor, is not Jewish.

In addition to making it to shul for the High Holidays and taking part in a family seder, The Wall Street Journal reports, Bloomberg has become a frequent visitor to Israel during his tenure, is a generous philanthropist and committed to the general idea of improving the world and fighting bigotry.

The WSJ article seems to take all of this as a marginal Jewish identity. We can spend all day debating whether that’s a fair characterization of Bloomberg’s Jewishness or not — but for better or worse, that would put the mayor in the same place as the majority of American Jews.

Count Dov Hikind, an Orthodox state lawmaker in New York and a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, as one of those who isn’t impressed:

"Would I call him a proud Jew? I don’t know," said the assemblyman, who represents an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and supported the mayor’s re-election in 2005 and opposed him in 2009. "Is there anything he’s said, done that has especially shown that he has a real connection with the Jewish community?"

Not sure if it will satisfy Hikind, but here’s an illuminating tidbit that the recent profiles of Bloomberg have overlooked: He produced the 2001 cinematic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s only novel, “Focus.” The novel and film tell the story of Newman, a gentile who’s forced to start wearing glasses as an adult, at which point people begin to mistake him for a Jew and he experiences anti-Semitism firsthand.

The novel and film offer a powerful rebuke to anti-Semitism and discrimination in general. And one doesn’t have to stretch to draw a straight line from these works to Bloomberg’s impassioned defenses of the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.

Why not just build the Islamic center somewhere else?

Mr. Finkelstein, the main Jewish character in “Focus,” faces a similar choice, as it becomes clear that he and his small shop are going to be targeted by neighborhood thugs. Newman is especially desperate to get Finkelstein to leave, fearing that the anti-Semitic mob will eventually turn on him.

”For God’s sake!” Finkelstein burst out, his fists clenched. “Don’t you see what they’re doing? What the hell can they get out of the Jews? There’s a hundred and thirty million people in this country and a couple million is Jews. It’s you they want, not me. I’m … I’m,” he started to stutter in his fury, “I’m chicken feed, I’m a nothin’. All I’m good for is so they can point to me and everybody else will give them their brains and their money, and then they will have the country. It’s a trick, it’s a racket. How many times must it happen, how many wars we got to fight in this world before you will understand what they are doing to you?”

Newman stood like a stone.

“Move. You want me to move,” Finkelstein said, his body trying to move about in the tiny store. “I will not move. I like it here. I like the air, I like it for my kids. I don’t know how to fight them but I will fight them. This thing is organized for what they can get out of it. They are a gang of devils and they want this country. And if you had any regard for this country you wouldn’t tell me such a thing. I will not move Mr. Newman. I will not do it. I won’t.”
 

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