Democrats Convening in Brooklyn? Get Set for the Bonfire of Jewish Vanities

A Brooklyn convention would be a very Jewish, very liberal feast - spiced up by the contrast with another Brooklyn, that of Mayor de Blasio’s very conservative, ultra-Orthodox friends.

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Clinton at the American Jewish Congress' gala night in N.Y.C., March 2014.
Clinton at the American Jewish Congress' gala night in N.Y.C., March 2014.Credit: AP

Hang on to your hat — or kippah. News that Brooklyn, New York, will vie to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention sets up the prospect of what might be called a bonfire of the Jewish vanities. It is the biggest borough in the city with the second largest Jewish population in the world. The New York Times may call Brooklyn “arguably the most liberal redoubt of one of the country’s most liberal cities.” But it is also boasts the most conservative Jewish communities on the planet.

It could make for a lively convention, particularly if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the nominee in waiting. It’s not just that her tenure a state secretary has been filled with so many controversies of interest to the Jews. Nor is it just because of the heat that is going to erupt around the immigration question, on which the symbolism of Brooklyn, gateway to America, would be clear.

It’s also possible to imagine Clinton turning up with her Jewish relatives. For it turns out that she has a Jewish grandparent, or at least step-grandfather on her mother’s side. Clinton is a Methodist. Her maternal grandmother, Della, married a man named Max Rosenberg in 1933, seven years after she and Clinton’s grandfather, Edwin Howell, divorced. It happens that I once underestimated just how electric that fact is.

The story of Clinton’s Jewish step-grandfather was broken by Seth Gitell of the Forward, which I was then editing. He’d been quietly working on the story for months. At one point he proposed spending some real money on a genealogical consultant. I barked that it had no news value. Was I ever wrong. When his scoop was run out in the Forward, it was fronted by nearly every paper in the city and many beyond.

That was on the eve of Clinton’s campaign for the Senate, which she won in a walk, despite having been, when she was First Lady, photographed kissing Suha Arafat. Photos of the infamous kiss will no doubt be carried on placards around Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, the gleaming new facility that is the proposed venue of the convention. Not that this would ruffle Mrs. Clinton, who has a famously tough hide.

Plus there is the new mayor, Bill de Blasio. He is the far left Democrat who outflanked the entire field to win the mayoralty by a landslide, albeit a landslide within a small turnout. Given how far left he is, one might think he’d be in a quarrelsome relationship with the religious Jews of Borough Park. But last week he turned up at the annual banquet of the Agudath Israel of America, where he got an extraordinarily warm welcome.

The progressive paragon spoke after the Novominsker Rebbe, Yaakov Perlow, gave a rousing speech warning against Conservative and Reform Judaism and denouncing the “open orthodoxy movement” that is seeking to bring women into the Orthodox rabbinate. The failure of the mayor to speak out against the Rebbe’s sentiments prompted the New York Times to issue a blistering column in protest. But it didn’t affect the mayor.

On the contrary, it turns out Borough Park was part of de Blasio’s constituency when he was in the City Council. He and the Agudah are strikingly cordial. After he spoke at the banquet, scores of black-hatted, gray bearded members of the Agudah crowded around His Honor for a handshake and a photo. All this could make for some astonishing tableaus on the sidelines of a Democratic convention in the heart of progressive Brooklyn.

That is seems to be the point that de Blasio emphasized in his proposal that the convention be held in his home borough. The mayor was quoted by the New York Times as writing that the “progressive spirit of New York City has never been stronger or more vibrant that it is today.” The mayor suggested that “this spirit can energize and captivate both the Democratic Party and the nation.”

Is that a winning formula for what would be the transition from an Obama administration that has been the most liberal America has yet had? I tend to doubt it, as with each passing day the Obama administration seems more out of touch with American sentiment. But New Yorkers have learned to underestimate de Blasio at their peril. He moved to the far left when everyone else was running to the center and walked off with the prize.

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