Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
Bernie Sanders and the Return of Old Jew Chic
Bernie Sanders and the Return of Old Jew Chic
FEBRUARY 4, 2016, 5:55 PM
Bernie Sanders has ignited a revolution in American culture, but it might not be the one he is intended to ignite.
The mixed Iowa results neither confirmed nor denied that he is on track toward upending the Democratic Party. But while he split the overall vote with Hillary Clinton, he won the youth vote, those between the ages of 17-29, by an astounding 84-14 margin. Let’s put this into perspective. A 74 year old guy who talks and looks like your Zayde shellacked the person who could become the first female President, a woman six years his junior, by an almost unfathomable margin.
I don’t support Bernie Sanders politically, but I LOVE the two unspoken (and likely unintended) messages coming out of his campaign: IT’S OK TO BE JEWISH AND IT’S COOL TO BE OLD.
Sanders is overtly Jewish in precisely the opposite way Joe Lieberman was. Sanders’ Jewishness pours forth in an ethnic, tribal sense – with a Brooklyn accent and neo-Catskills shtick, plus a heavy dose of social responsibility. When he ran for national office, Lieberman’s Jewishness was expressed in terms of his traditional religious observance and unapologetic support for Israel. Both are legitimate – Sanders is the Yin to Lieberman’s Yang. The fact that Jewish identity been not been seen as a political detriment in either case is both highly significant – and profoundly reassuring. They love us! They really love us!
But it’s the “old” part – that’s the real revelation. I’m not just talking about the fact that he is in his mid ‘70s or that if elected he would become theoldest president. What’s telling is that he doesn’t feel a need to hide it and in fact seems very comfortable beneath his Ben Gurion bushel of white. And despite his visible senior-ness, or maybe even because of that, he is a rock star on campuses and is adored in almost Obama-like fashion by millennials and their younger siblings.
I’ve seen it in the rabbinate and so many other professions, where wisdom and experience have been cast aside as congregations and corporations have sought to grow ever younger. Even when I was a young rabbi, reaping the benefits of these distorted priorities, Iquestioned the logic of idolizing youth. As I’ve grown and grayed, I’ve seen a dismaying acceleration of this trend, to the point where prestigious congregations, who once waited for candidates to turn 50 before even considering them for top rabbinic positions, now immediately filter out those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of 38.
Professionally speaking, to not dye was to die.
But now we’ve ushered in the era of grandpa-chic, and Bernie is a rock star on campus.
So are we now entering a new era of old-fashioned respect for those who are fashionably old? Has “Where’s the beef” gone the way of the dinosaur even as old timers like C-3PO are rescued from the trash bin? Does the Sanders revolution auger well for other older candidates and indicate that youthful inexperience is no longer what the youthful and politically inexperienced are looking for? Or will this infatuation with the Bern burn out with each loss in the less friendly Sun Belt states?
Maybe – hopefully – this thing is bigger than Bernie.
Maybe the kids themselves are telling us all to “chill” about aging. It’s not unusual for young people to emulate the ways of their grandparents’ generation – hence the return to electric typewriters, vinyl and Brooklyn. Hence the popularity of names like “Sophie” and “Max.”
I also understand that there may well be an unfair double standard when it comes to women. But for an Old Jewish Guy to be rockin’ like Bernie is, it’s got to be reassuring for people of all ages and all shades of gray.
Maybe they rightfully are showing respect not simply for an elder, but for a person who doesn’t hide his true self. What they are craving is not experience, but authenticity. And they are wise enough to understand that vitality and idealism are not necessary synonymous with youth.
That message is good news for the many 50 and 60-somethings currently looking for jobs. The youth cult may be waning, and the young are showing us the way.