‘Jewish In My Soul’


The list of grievances against him from the hawkish side of the pro-Israel community is, by now, considerable: regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he put the onus on Israel from the get-go by demanding a settlement freeze; he endangered Israel by making a bad nuclear deal with Iran; he feuded frequently with, and disrespected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and, in stab-in-the-back style, he betrayed the Jewish state during his last month in office by abstaining on an anti-Israel resolution condemning settlements at the United Nations.

But before he leaves the stage and the debate over his legacy begins, let us pause to consider the other president, Barack Obama, the one the vast majority of American Jews voted for in two elections; the one who arranged, in the last year, the most generous financial support package  ever for Israel; the one whom Israeli security officials attest presided over a run of unprecedented security cooperation between the two countries; the one who (perhaps naively, given Palestinian intransigence and the turn in Israeli politics) urged Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.

Oh, and then there’s Obama the Jew. 

In an interview this week in The New York Times, Obama cited the books he reads which influence him. Among them are books about the immigrant experience, like those by iconic Jewish novelists Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, “steeped with this sense of being an outsider.”

By no historical or theological measure, of course, was Barack Hussein Obama a Member of the Tribe. Born to a non-practicing Muslim father from Kenya and an American mother from a liberal, Unitarian background, Obama embraced Christianity in 1987, and identified and practiced as a Christian thereafter.

But coming of age in the milieu of Chicago-Harvard-Washington, exposed to those communities’ disproportionate numbers of liberal Jews, he, according to his own recollections, found some of their Jewish values rubbing off on him.

“He keenly understands certain peculiarities of the Jewish communal psyche — survival strategies that distinguish the Jews from other American minority groups,” an essayist wrote in Tablet last year.

“The first Jewish president,” said The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

“An honorary member of the tribe,” Obama would say of himself — “I am Jewish in my soul.”

Like many U.S. presidents, he surrounded himself with Jewish advisers (including present Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel), appointed identified Jews to prominent positions in his administration (two Federal Reserve chairs, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, senior adviser David Axelrod, etc.), and appointed one (Elana Kagan) and nearly another one (Merrick Garland) to the Supreme Court.

But unlike other presidents, he brought a heavy dose of Yiddishkeit into the White House. His predecessor, George Bush, had started the tradition of a menorah-lighting Chanukah celebration there. Obama added a second Chanukah celebration.

Then there’s the White House seder.

Obama initiated that tradition, leading a seder in 2009 on the second night of Passover by himself; there he was, a kipa atop his head, reading from a Maxwell House Haggadah, holding a glass Kiddush cup Michelle had received from a rabbi in Prague, sipping Manischewitz wine. Some friends and White House employees and their families joined the Obama family, the younger ones searching for the afikoman.

The year before, on the campaign trail, Obama joined in as several campaign aides who couldn’t get back home for the holiday made their own seder. In addition to the standard “Next year in Jerusalem,” Obama added: “Next year in the White House.”

Then there’s the yichus, the Jewish family roots. A cousin of Michelle’s is Rabbi Capers Funnye, head of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, arguably the most prominent black rabbi in the country. A half-brother of Obama, Mark Obama — son of the president’s father and a Jewish mother with roots in Lithuania — is Jewish.

A biracial president who has lived in different continents. Not surprising that he is practically revered by some Jews, reviled by others.

As the president ponders a post-White House life, Israel politics, in the end, is dogging him. That’s why a Jewish country club near Washington is considering denying him membership.

Perhaps it’s par for the course these days in a deeply divided Jewish community. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, a man who has a Jewish son-in-law and a Jewish daughter, loves a good game of golf.

This week he begins taking a swing at his own legacy.