The same is not true of Sanders. His Brooklyn growl evokes a cultural Jewish identity every bit as strong as that of Chuck Schumer or his Saturday Night Live dopplegänger, Larry David. But he is more likely to talk about Pope Francis than any inspiration he draws from his own religion. For the most part, Sanders only discusses his Judaism if asked, such as last June, in the aftermath of an erroneous report mentioned by NPR’s Diane Rehm that he held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. “I’m proud to be Jewish,” Sanders said at a breakfast event in Washington. He added that he was “not particularly religious.” When Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders in October if he believed in God, he didn’t answer directly. “I am who I am,” Sanders replied. “What I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together, that I think it is not a good thing to believe as human beings that we can turn our backs on other people.”
“And this is not Judaism,” he added. “This is what Pope Francis is talking about.”
He struck a similar note a month earlier during his speech at Liberty University in Virginia, the evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell where he linked himself to the pontiff’s message of social justice but mentioned Judaism only in the context of “the great religions,” and not as his own. (He made his appearance at Liberty on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.)
“He hardly could run away from it—everyone knows he looks like Larry David,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. “But at the same time, I don’t think that the leadership of the Jewish community views him as one of their own in the way that they viewed Lieberman or that Zionists might have viewed Brandeis.” Sarna noted that the Iowa caucus—a potential history-making moment for Sanders—will come just a few days after the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s nomination of Louis Brandeis to be the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court. “Perhaps what’s important is that it’s a nonissue, just as it’s a nonissue that there are three Jewish Supreme Court justices,” Sarna said. (The fact that the other six justices are all Catholic has actually drawn significantly more attention.)
Sanders has spoken more in recent months about his upbringing in Brooklyn, telling The New Yorker that growing up Jewish had an influence on him politically if not religiously. His father emigrated to the U.S. from Poland, and many of his relatives died in Europe during World War II. “An election in 1932,” he said, “ended up killing 50 million people around the world.” As a young man, Sanders briefly lived and worked on a kibbutz in Israel.
Sanders’ wife Jane is not Jewish, and he is not known to be involved in the small Jewish community back home in Vermont. “He just doesn’t connect with organized Jewish religion,” said Rabbi James Glazier, the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, a reform congregation in South Burlington. Glazier said that while he had seen Sanders attend a prayer service after the death of the father of a longtime friend, he had not been receptive to efforts over the years to draw him into the community. “This isn’t his comfort zone,” Glazier told me. “The doors of the Jewish community are open, and he knows he can walk in, and he knows he’ll be accepted. But we stopped asking because it would be insulting to keep on asking.”