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What’s in a Name? for Clark, Clues to His Jewish Heritage

October 15, 2003
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Wesley Clark likes to tell his Jewish cousins how he wondered as a little boy why his middle name, Kanne, was so unusual — so unlike the middle names his buddies had in Little Rock, Ark.

When he was a little older, Clark’s mother, Veneta Updegraf, explained that Kanne was the family name of his biological father. Updegraf had moved from Chicago to her native Little Rock when Barry Kanne died, and she married Victor Clark, who adopted Wesley.

But it wasn’t until 1967, when he was 23, that Clark found out that Kanne was far more meaningful than most middle names: Benjamin Kanne was a Kohen, a descendant of the ancient Jewish priestly caste.

Clark was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford that year when, one evening, his wife said a relative had called.

His cousin, Barry Kanne, recalled the story: “His wife told him, ‘You got a call from this Molly Friedman, who says she’s your cousin. Do you have Jewish roots?’ He says, ‘I wasn’t aware of any, but maybe.’ “

The meeting with Friedman led to contacts with other Jewish family members, often initiated by Clark, who would go on to become a four-star general and, now, a Democratic candidate for president.

Kanne described his first encounter with Clark, which took place about 1990.

“He was in Atlanta, and he called and said we ought to get together,” said Kanne, whose wife is active in the Atlanta Jewish community. “We had him for dinner in our home.”

Their children — Kanne’s daughter, April, and Clark’s son, Wesley Jr. — were studying at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and they already had been in touch.

Kanne said Clark always was interested in the family’s Jewish roots and was intrigued by the discovery that their grandfather, Jacob Kanne, was marked as a Kohen on his tombstone in Chicago.

It’s not clear why Clark told a startled room of yeshiva students in 1999, “I am the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son — at least five generations, and they’re all rabbis.”

Clark now says that statement was the product of “bad information.”

Kanne says it’s hard to place the family’s origins; immigration papers list both Minsk and Pinsk.

“The guys who filled in the forms were not precise,” he said, repeating an oft-heard plaint about 19th-century immigration officials.

Kanne, an executive with an Atlanta-area telecommunications company, has made family genealogy a mission. He has drawn up a chart tracing Clark’s Jewish heritage as far back as 1846.

Clark’s closest religious adviser is a former Navy chaplain, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, according to The Associated Press. The candidate’s statements have been strongly pro-Israel, and he supported the Oct. 5 Israeli air strike against a suspected terrorist camp in Syria.

Clark’s supporters have used his Jewish roots to tout his candidacy. Organizers of a $2,000-a-plate fund-raiser last month targeting New York Jews preceded the invitations with a mass e-mail of an earlier JTA story about Clark’s Jewish roots.

Clark denies using his heritage for political advantage, saying he is hardly a Johnny-come-lately to his Jewish past.

“It was well acknowledged over time,” Clark told The Associated Press. “There was no sudden discovery.”

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