Barack Obama Is Such a Traditional Jew Sometimes

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Two weeks ago, after I finished interviewing President Obama on the subject of Iran and Israel, I handed him a copy of the New American Haggadah, the Passover user's guide edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, which includes commentary by Goldblog. It is an all-around excellent Haggadah (except for my bits, he says fetchingly). Jonathan did a masterful job, first by recruiting Nathan Englander (whose new short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, I just read on the flight over to Tel Aviv -- by the way, I'm in Tel Aviv -- is the equal, at least, of his first collection) to re-translate the Hebrew, in order to de-stultify it. Jonathan also recruited, in addition to yours truly, Nathaniel Deutsch, Rebecca Goldstein and Lemony Snicket to write commentaries, and found a genius named Oded Ezer to design the Haggadah.

It is not, as The New York Times points out, a Brooklyn-hipster Haggadah (as the Foer-Englander combination might suggest, particularly when you realize -- just go click on that Times link --  that they go shirt-shopping together), but an intelligent and beautiful Haggadah, very modern but also deeply respectful of everything that came before.

When I handed him the Haggadah, President Obama, who famously stages his own seders at the White House, (which is a very nice philo-Semitic thing to do, IMHO) spent a moment leafing through it and making approving noises. Then he said (as I told the Times): "Does this mean we can't use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?"

George W. Bush was, in his own way, a philo-Semite, but he never would have made such an M.O.T. kind of joke (see the end of this post if you're not sure what M.O.T. means).  Once again, Barack Obama was riffing off the cosmic joke that he is somehow anti-Semitic, when in fact, as many people understand, he is the most Jewish president we've ever had (except for Rutherford B. Hayes). No president, not even Bill Clinton, has traveled so widely in Jewish circles, been taught by so many Jewish law professors, and had so many Jewish mentors, colleagues, and friends, and advisers as Barack Obama (though it is true that every so often he appoints a gentile to serve as White House chief of staff). And so no President, I'm guessing, would know that the Maxwell House Haggadah -- the flimsy, wine-stained, rote, anti-intellectual Haggadah you get when you buy a can of coffee at Shoprite) -- is the target, alternatively, of great derision and veneration among American Jews (at least, I'm told there are people who venerate it).  I'll grapple with the meaning of Obama's Jewishness later, but the dispute between the Jewish right and the Jewish left over Obama is actually not about whether he is anti-Jewish or pro-Jewish, but over what sort of Jew he actually is. 

After he cracked wise about Maxwell House, I told the president -- this is the part the Times left out -- that, as commander-in-chief, he could use whatever Haggadah he liked, though it seemed to me that our Haggadah might add some depth and meaning and aesthetic charm to his seder, as it would to any seder. I knew, of course, that he would stick with the Maxwell House Haggadah -- tradition! -- but it didn't strike me until later exactly why he would stick with it. The reason he's sticking with Maxwell House is the same reason he spoke at the AIPAC convention, and is once again not speaking at the upcoming convention of J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel group.

Before I go on, here are all the usual Goldblog caveats: AIPAC is too unthinkingly rightist to me, J Street is too naively leftist, etc. etc., but both groups represent legitimate streams of Jewish pro-Israel thought in America, and both are worthy of the President's attention. But the President only pays attention to one -- and it's the one where he's not very popular. I wandered around the AIPAC convention last week, and it wasn't too easy to hear a kind word about Obama. The 13,000 or so delegates to the AIPAC convention are drawn disproportionately from the 22 percent of Jewish voters who did not support Obama in 2008. J Street, on the other hand, is made up overwhelmingly of people who support Obama.

And how does this relate to Obama's choice of Haggadahs? When it comes to Jews, Obama does the safe thing. The Jews in Glencoe and Syosset and Boca read the Maxwell House Haggadah, and that's good enough for him. They like AIPAC in Glencoe and Syosset and Boca, and that's good enough for him, as well. And by the way, just so I'm crystal-clear on the subject, the New American Haggadah is not the J Street equivalent of the haggadah. It is, like Judaism, larger than mere politics. And I'm also expressly not making the point that Obama necessarily shares J Street's outlook on Middle East politics. He is well to the left of the AIPAC mainstream, of course, but I think he's too hardheaded to buy much of J Street's line. But J Street is a natural constituency for Obama, but one he avoids, because someone told him it would be politically unwise to be seen with too many J Streeters. An Obama address at J Street would do great things: It would signal to the American Jewish establishment that a left-Zionist viewpoint is a legitimate viewpoint; and it would allow the President to tell J Street just exactly where he thinks its members are right, and where he thinks they are wrong.

My prediction is that not until we have an actual Jewish president will the president address J Street (obviously, this isn't true if the first Jewish president is Eric Cantor). Only a Jewish president -- a Rahm Emanuel-type, if not Rahm himself -- would feel secure enough to make the argument that AIPAC doesn't speak for everyone. Also, the first Jewish president will undoubtedly use The New American Haggadah. Of that I'm sure.

Oh, and M.O.T = member of the tribe.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/barack-obama-is-such-a-traditional-jew-sometimes/254292/