By BERNIE BELLAN
The announcement that Joe Biden has chosen Kamala Harris as his running mate immediately set off a torrent of applause from many Jews who, if they weren’t aware before that Harris is married to a Jewish man, Doug Emhoff, are certainly aware now.
But, in checking off one more box that should broaden what was already a very diverse set of qualifications for the vice-presidency of the U.S., Kamala Harris’s rather fluid identity raises some questions about how any individual chooses to identify in this day and age.
While we can’t pick our skin colour – it’s always been a source of interest to me how certain individuals of mixed descent choose to identify strongly as a member of one particular racial group. The case that I find most interesting is that of Barack Obama, who had a white mother, Ann Dunham, and a Kenyan Black father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. Obama’s parents divorced when he was only a few months old.
Barack Obama’s mother subsequently married an Indonesian man and young Barack spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He also has half brothers and sisters from that relationship, as well as from his father’s subsequent marriage to a Black woman.
In addition to his mother, with whom he was very close, Obama was also raised by his mother’s parents in Hawaii from the time he was 11 until he went off to college.
Obama eventually moved to Chicago and chose to identify with the Black part of his identity. He’s always referred to as America’s “first Black president”, but one wonders what path his life might have taken had he chosen instead to be more ambiguous about his racial identity.
Similarly, Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Black man from Jamaica and an Indian mother. We’ve also learned that Harris spent her formative years in Montreal (in Westmount) with her mother. In an interesting article that was posted on the Sun chain of newspapers, columnist Tarak Fatah made this observation about Harris:
“Writing about her Tamil Indian mother, Kamala Harris once wrote that she is the ‘reason for everything.’ In her memoir and a New York Times article, she explained, ‘There is no title or honour on Earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all.’
“Yet, when it came to list her ancestry on the U.S. census form, Kamala Harris dropped any link to her mother and chose instead to be known as African-American instead of Asian Indian.”
Finally, here in Canada we have our own recent case of someone with an interesting patchwork of identities in the form of Annamie Paul, who is both Black and Jewish, and who is now favoured to win the leadership of the Federal Green party. We’ve already carried two articles about Paul, one from the JTA, and one from Gerry Posner, both of which discuss her decision to convert to Judaism while she was a student in Princeton.
In looking back at those articles, I was particularly struck by this line from the JTA story about Paul: “Like picking a religion, Paul looked to shared values to determine which political party she would join when her work no longer prohibited her from doing so.”
So, while Annamie Paul couldn’t choose her skin colour in the same way that Barack Obama and Kamala Harris seem to have done, she chose her religion and now the political party which she is striving to lead.
I offer these examples of fluid identity not as a criticism, but rather as an observation of the degree to which individuals seem to be able to define themselves in ways that can often help them in future endeavours, whether or not that was a motivating factor in their decision. All three of the individuals I have cited here became lawyers - and then ended up entering into politics. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Are you as cynical as I am and wonder whether, especially in the cases of Obama and Harris, both their decisions to identify as Black - when they could have identified as something else, were strongly influenced by the thought that it would be far more useful to be thought of as Black if they were to enter into politics?
As for Annamie Paul, full credit to her for daring to be her own person – and seek out both a religion and a political party that conformed with her beliefs. But, the idea of shopping around for a religion - and a political party...well, it does seem rather arbitrary.
Still, as we ourselves have demonstrated in this very paper, with all the attention we’ve heaped on Paul, when someone makes a conscious decision either to convert to Judaism or to marry a Jewish spouse – it’s bound to elicit attention - and that attention can’t hurt someone with political ambitions.
A case that’s even closer to home – and one which I find somewhat confusing is that of Laurelle Harris, whose name has been recently in the news when she conducted a study of alleged discrimination at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
Laurelle Harris is a Black woman who converted to Judaism several years ago, but when my wife and I attended an event for the LGBTQ Jewish community a few years ago, and Laurelle Harris was there representing the Jewish Federation, I was quite surprised when she began her remarks that evening by saying, “I am a proud Black Jewish gay woman”.
“Gay?” I thought. I didn’t know Laurelle Harris was gay. (She had been married to Rabbi Larry Pinsker for a time, but then again – being married to someone isn’t necessarily an indication what anyone’s sexual preference is.)
I also thought: “Well, she’s certainly checked off all the right boxes”.
Still, when I’ve mentioned that particular story to others, I’m always met with the same reaction: “Laurelle Harris isn’t gay.” So – why would she say that she is, I wonder?
The point of this is to establish that modern Western societies are changing so rapidly that members of groups who thought they knew how to define that group are often left puzzled by someone’s choice to identify as part of that group. We didn’t have room in this issue to print in its entirety a very thoughtful piece by someone by the name of Alicia Chandler, who describes herself as “a Jewish woman married to a Catholic man”, but she makes a very interesting point about how Jews should be more accepting of interfaith marriages.
Chandler questions all this gushing among Jews over Kamala Harris for her being married to a Jewish man, which she finds somewhat hypocritical. Her piece is titled: “We can’t kvell over Kamala Harris’ Jewish husband while we demonize interfaith marriage.”
In her column, Chandler writes:
“Around the country, you hear the bubbies kvelling:
“Did you know Kamala Harris’ husband is Jewish?
“Did you know her step kids call her mamele?
“Did you see the video with her doing the cute impression of her Jewish mother-in-law?
“Did you hear that he broke a glass at their wedding?
“It is not surprising that the Jewish community is excited to be represented on the Biden-Harris ticket. Political leanings of the community aside, Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, is a member of the tribe, and two of Joe Biden’s children are married to someone who is Jewish.
“But sadly, the Jewish community is a
bit selective in celebrating interfaith marriage. If it brings us a Jewish second gentleman, we will cheer. But interfaith marriage is still taboo to many, and an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi would not have been allowed to preside over the Harris and Emhoff wedding.
“American Jews want to celebrate the Jewish ties of any famous person while still discriminating against the relationships that tie these individuals to the Jewish community.”
Chandler goes on to argue for greater acceptance of interfaith families within the Jewish community, writing that “It is time for full inclusion of all interfaith families in the Jewish community, not just vice presidential nominees and celebrities. In 2013, 44% of all Jews were married to a non-Jew; 58% percent of those married since 2005, and the trend is seemingly on the rise.
“Doug and Kamala are not a rare exception — they represent much of the American Jewish community today. We should make a greater effort to make families like them feel just as included and celebrated.”
Of course, the problem with excerpting Chandler’s column in a newspaper like this one is that it might not be greeted with much favour by many of our readers. While I’m sure that many of you have direct experience with interfaith families – either because you, yourself, are part of one or you have children who are in that situation, I’m realistic enough to know that many of our readers have a hard time coming to terms with the notion that intermarriage is now the norm within our Jewish community.
Even as it’s increasingly difficult to define what it means to be Jewish, however, I think that most of us still take great pride when someone, especially someone as prominent a personality as Kamala Harris, chooses to marry someone Jewish. Okay – so maybe the extent to which she has adopted Jewish norms is limited to her stepkids calling her “momala” (see article on page 2 for an explanation how that came about) and, as noted in Chandler’s piece, a couple other nods to stereotypical Jewish customs – but hey, she chose to marry a Jew, just as Joe Biden also has two children married to Jews (not to mention Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son Eric – also married to Jews).
In Donald Trump’s case, however while he certainly doesn’t gloss over his Jewish familial connections, he is also known to have traded in anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as when he said that he likes “short guys who wear yarmulkes every day” to count his money.
In short – any celebrity’s having a Jewish connection – especially when that celebrity is very high on the pecking order, is a source of some fascination to many of us, but beyond the superficial aspect of it all, what it really says is that being Jewish or being married to a Jew is not nearly the political handicap that it would likely have been not too long ago.