(JTA) – When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office as U.S. president and vice president on Wednesday, they will be making history in all sorts of ways — including Jewish history.
Some of the historical firsts are obvious: Biden will be the oldest person ever to occupy the White House, and Harris will be the first woman or person of color or person of South Asian descent ever to serve as vice president.
Their Jewish bona fides are also notable: Biden’s three children who survived into adulthood all married Jews, making him a grandfather to several Jewish grandchildren. (Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972.)
Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, is Jewish, and the couple celebrate Jewish holidays together. Their 2014 wedding featured the traditional Jewish breaking of the glass, and Emhoff’s two children from his first marriage refer to Harris as “Momala” — a mashup of Kamala and the Yiddishism “mamaleh.”
This past Hanukkah, Harris and Emhoff posted a video on Twitter of the couple lighting the menorah.
“I love Hanukkah because it really is about the light, and bringing light where there has been darkness,” Harris said, pronouncing Hanukkah with the guttural “chet” sound – rather than the Americanized “hey.” “And it is a celebration of, always, tikkun olam, which is about fighting for justice and fighting for the dignity of all people, and it’s about rededication.”
The blended Jewish families that will lead the new U.S. administration are not an anomaly — they are emblematic of the story of American Jewry.
Most American Jews marry outside the faith – 58% according to the most recent national survey, conducted in 2013 by the Pew Research Center. However, rather than abandoning Judaism, these interfaith couples increasingly are raising their children as Jews, or celebrating Jewish traditions alongside those of other faiths. Some 45% of intermarried Jews are raising their children in the Jewish religion, according to Pew, up from 28% in 1990.
While half a century ago Jews who intermarried were looked upon as a loss for the Jewish community, today interfaith families are part and parcel of the American Jewish community. In the Reform movement, the largest U.S. Jewish religious denomination, rabbis officiate at interfaith weddings, many synagogues have non-Jews as members, and certain ritual roles during synagogue services are open to non-Jews.
The Reconstructionist movement, which is the smallest of America’s liberal Jewish denominations with about 100 affiliated synagogues, made history in 2015 when it dropped a ban against accepting intermarried students to the movement’s rabbinical school.
In the Conservative movement, more than one-quarter of all homes include a non-Jewish family member, according to the Pew survey. Even among many Orthodox Jews, it has become more common to take a welcoming approach toward interfaith couples in the hope that a non-Jewish spouse ultimately converts rather than to ostracize intermarried Jews.
By the same token, the prevailing attitudes of Americans generally toward Jews have warmed over time. In the 1950s and ’60s, large swaths of Americans disdained Jews in one way or another: In 1958, only 62% of Americans said they’d be willing to vote for a well-qualified Jewish political candidate, compared to 91% in 2015, and a 1964 survey found that 43% of Americans held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus, compared to 26% in 2004.
While 2019 saw a 40-year high in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, it’s common for non-Jews with Jews in their families to express pride about their Jewish relatives. Biden, a Catholic, is one example.
“I’m the only Irish Catholic you know who had his dream met because his daughter married a Jewish surgeon,” Biden quipped about his Jewish son-in-law, Howard Krein, at a political event in Ohio in 2016.
Krein, a doctor, married Biden’s youngest daughter, Ashley Biden, in an interfaith ceremony in 2012 officiated by a Roman Catholic priest and a Reform rabbi, Joseph M. Forman.
“A ketubah was signed. The couple got married under a beautiful huppah, made of natural branches with a cloth covering,” Forman, rabbi at a New Jersey congregation, Or Chadash, told the Forward. “The wedding ceremony started with the traditional baruch haba and included the priestly blessing and the sheva brachot. The groom stepped on a glass at the end.”
At the reception, Biden danced the hora.
Biden’s son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015, also married a Jew: Hallie Olivere, whose Jewish mother Biden had known since his own childhood. At a 2015 event in Delaware, Biden joked that he had had a crush on Olivere’s mother as a kid.
“I was the Catholic kid. She was the Jewish girl. I still tried. I didn’t get anywhere,” Biden said.
Biden’s second son, Hunter, recently married for the second time — this time to Melissa Cohen, a Jewish documentary filmmaker from South Africa. Within days of their meeting, Hunter Biden got a “Shalom” tattoo to match one that Cohen had. The couple had their first child, a son born in Los Angeles, last March. That brought the number of Biden grandchildren with a Jewish parent to three, adding to Beau and Hallie’s two children.
Biden is not the first U.S. president with a child married to a Jew — that distinction belongs to Donald Trump, whose daughter Ivanka underwent conversion by an Orthodox rabbi before marrying her Jewish husband, Jared Kushner, in 2009. The couple are raising their three children as Jews, regularly observe Shabbat, attend Orthodox synagogues and send their kids to Jewish day school.
Chelsea Clinton, the only daughter of former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, married a Jew, Marc Mezvinsky, in 2010, a decade after her father left office. Their interfaith ceremony was co-officiated by a rabbi and a minister and included a huppah and the recitation of the sheva brachot, the seven marriage blessings. The couple has three children.
Chelsea Clinton identifies as a Methodist but has become an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism. Responding two years ago to an online troll who wrote that she “isn’t even Jewish she’s just ugly,” Clinton responded: “Hi Adam — you’re right, I am not Jewish. Since you find me ugly, feel free to never look at me. The ugly Jew is a vile centuries old anti-Semitic trope so next time, please just go straight to ugly and leave out the rest. Thank you.”
After Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of three Muslims in Congress, claimed in February 2019 that AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, pays politicians to support Israel, Clinton tweeted: “We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism.”
President Barack Obama does not have any Jewish family ties, but so many of his White House advisers and close associates were Jews that Obama ended up holding a private Seder every Passover during his eight years in the White House.
Then, of course, there were the near-misses: Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, would have been vice president had Al Gore, who won half a million more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, held onto Florida in a disputed recount that ultimately awarded the presidency to Bush. John Kerry, who lost the presidential election to Bush in 2004, had grandparents on his father’s side who were born Jews but converted to Catholicism. Kerry’s brother, Cameron Kerry, is a convert to Judaism.
When Harris is sworn in this week as vice president, it will mark the first time a Jew will live in one of the top two official U.S. residences: the U.S. Naval Observatory, official home of the vice president.
There’s another American Jewish storyline that Harris and Emhoff embody: the interracial couple. A growing number of American Jews are marrying outside their race — including both whites and Jews of color, who comprise somewhere between 6% and 15% of American Jews.
Of course, with Harris poised to become America’s first-ever female vice president, most of the attention surrounding Emhoff won’t be about his being Jewish, but his being America’s first-ever “Second Gentleman” — the title he settled on as an alternative to the traditional designation, Second Lady.
Lior Zaltzman contributed to this report.