When Abraham Beame was elected the first Jewish mayor of New York in 1973, the American Examiner-Jewish Week proclaimed, “Gracie Mansion to get mezuzah now that city has new mayor.”
With Mark Green and Michael Bloomberg in a dead heat before Tuesday’s mayoral election, the only sure thing is that Gracie Mansion will once again have a symbolic mezuzah on its doorpost.
Thirty years ago, Beame’s ethnicity was considered so exceptional that the Jewish community of New York saw the win as an ethnic triumph. Katz’s Deli, a local landmark, put a sign over its counter urging patrons to “Send a Salami to Your Boy in City Hall,” a play on its wartime slogan, “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.”
This year, in contrast, there’s been little mention of religion in the media and among voters — and only muted recognition of the subject by the candidates themselves.
In fact, the Jewish issue seems to be a nonissue as the city chooses its 108th mayor. Like the rest of New York, the Jewish community is having a hard time deciding between two Upper East Side candidates who are both left of center, Jewish and schooled at Harvard.
Rebecca Michelman, a television producer who is actively Jewish, said it was only on her way to the polling station Tuesday that it really hit her that two Jews were going head to head for the mayoralty.
“If one had not been Jewish, and if I knew he had issues with Israel in the past,” Michelman said,” that would have affected my decision. Definitely.”
A choice between two Jewish candidates shows how established Jews have become in New York, said Eric Solomon, rabbi of Congregation Tehillah in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and assistant rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“It’s raised my level of gratitude that two Jewish candidates who disagree with each other can become the mayor of the greatest city in the world — maybe outside of Jerusalem,” Solomon joked.
With both candidates part of the mishpocha, Jewish voters said they didn’t find a uniquely Jewish perspective to the elections.
“My gut reaction is that I see myself first as a New Yorker,” Michelman said. “I’m worried about the economy, and other urban issues like homelessness and education and teacher’s salaries.”
Marc Landis and Beth Berns, Democratic leaders on the Upper West Side, said the biggest issue for voters now is rebuilding downtown, followed by public safety and education.
“The ‘Jewish’ issues are the civic issues,” Landis said.
The candidates themselves hardly made reference to their Jewishness. Green’s Web site skims the surface of his Jewish identity, noting only that “Mark, while proud of his Jewish heritage, has visited over 100 churches throughout the City.”
Bloomberg’s Web site makes no mention of his Jewish heritage and lists no Jewish charities among his affiliations, which include Lincoln Center and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Still, both candidates are in touch with the city’s Jewish life in various ways, Landis said. Green has been active in issues affecting the Jewish community and Israel, he said, and when Green was consumer affairs commissioner he administered a survey to protect against price gouging over Passover products.
On the other hand, one Jewish observer, explaining her preference for Bloomberg, said he simply seemed like more of a mensch than Green.
Until Sept. 11 — the original primary date — the campaign had meandered along without an overarching issue. The terror strikes changed all that.
Everything else — schools, crime, public transportation — became secondary to public security and economic recovery. While race played a role in the Democratic primary — Green’s critics accused him of stirring fears that a “black-brown” coalition would lead to an increase in crime — that was not the case on Tuesday.
As the election approached, the city’s economic future increasingly took center stage. Green faulted Bloomberg for his lack of political experience, while Bloomberg highlighted Green’s lack of business acumen.
Michelman, for example, said she considered voting for Bloomberg, but ultimately decided not to because of his political inexperience.
Personalities also were important, with many voters — including many Jews — commenting on Green’s perceived arrogance. Though she voted for Green, television producer Pam Wolfe said she did so grudgingly, as “the lesser of two evils.”
A few miles downtown, Bloomberg’s daughter cast her ballot in Greenwich Village.
Green tried to make religion an issue by depicting her father as the “worst Jew,” Emma Bloomberg said.
Referring to the sexual harassment case against her father — which featured prominently in Green advertisements as the race drew to a close — Emma Bloomberg said statements applied to her father were untrue or taken out of context, a smear tactic she said Green often uses in close races.
While neither candidate stressed foreign policy issues, some New Yorkers suggested the city can not entirely avoid foreign affairs after Sept. 11.
Prior to the suicide air strikes, Giuliani only occasionally forayed into the Middle East conflict, consistently coming down on the side of Israel — such as the time he refused to allow Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to participate in a city-sponsored concert in 1996.
More recently, of course, Giuliani rejected a $10 million relief check from a Saudi prince who tried to connect the Sept. 11 terror attacks to U.S. support for Israel.
It’s unclear to some whether a Jewish mayor — open to charges of bias on the Middle East — will be more reluctant to speak out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.
Television producer Wolfe, though, suggested a Jewish mayor would “have a little more leeway” on Israel, as voters probably take his support for the Jewish state as a given.
“If people look at it as a conflict of interest, then he should stand up against it,” Wolfe said. “If a Jewish mayor is voted in, he’s also being voted in for who he is.”
One non-Jewish voter, though, said that while he expects the next mayor will take an enhanced role in foreign affairs, he must remember that he represents all New Yorkers.
“The stakes are now so much higher,” said Alex Manette, a 32-year-old actor who voted for Bloomberg because of his business prowess.
“It’s important for the mayor to have a voice, but his personal biases needs to be put aside. Whoever gets into office will have to find that fine line of what to say and what not to say.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.