George Allen a top American Jew? Who knew?

November 19, 2006|By Jonathan Tilove | Jonathan Tilove,Special to The Sun

OK, so George Allen won't be returning to the U.S. Senate in January, and chances are he'll never occupy the White House. But, at the end of what had to be one of the worst weeks of his life, the Jewish newspaper the Forward named Allen the 51st member of its annual Forward 50 list of the most influential American Jews.

It was the Forward that earlier this year revealed the Virginia Republican's Jewish roots, and Allen's flustered response may have contributed to his narrow defeat and the Democratic takeover of the Senate.

In being named to the list in the Nov. 10 issue of the venerable Jewish weekly, which is based in New York, Allen joins a raft of rabbis, scholars and philanthropists, as well as Daily Show host Jon Stewart, Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen and actress Scarlett Johansson, who Forward editor J.J. Goldberg says happens to be both Jewish and the most beautiful woman in the world.

The Forward 50 includes five top picks. In no particular order, they are Stewart; Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League; Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service; Arnold Eisen, a religious studies professor at Stanford University who next fall will become chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, and the nominal leader of Conservative Judaism in America; and, paired together, Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel and New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who, respectively, chaired the Democratic campaign committees in the House and Senate.

The list includes the leaders of important Jewish organizations, like David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Foxman. There are also more familiar names like writers Phillip Roth and Elie Wiesel, and, making her first appearance, Barbra Streisand, who, the Forward notes, far from hiding her Jewishness "built a career by daring the public to mock her."

Aside from Allen, there are some more obviously Jewish politicians, like Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat who won re-election this year as an independent, and Emanuel and Schumer. The Emanuel family is also represented by the actor Jeremy Piven, who plays the endearingly hyper and obnoxious Hollywood agent Ari Gold on the HBO series Entourage. Piven's character is based on Rahm Emanuel's kid brother, Ari.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the Forward 50's sports section is thin, consisting only of UCLA point guard Jordan Farmar and baseball's Shawn Green. Green's refusal to play on Yom Kippur got him on the Forward list two years ago as a Los Angeles Dodger, and he made it again this year because his trade late in the season to the New York Mets gave many Jewish Mets fans special reason to kvell (beam with pride).

Borat's Cohen went Mel Brooks and Springtime for Hitler one better, turning his faux documentary of the American journey of a clueless, anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist, Borat, into a sometimes uncomfortable comic masterpiece. Cohen, an Orthodox Jew who spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel, is British. But Goldberg said he was able to add him to the list, which is limited to members of the American Jewish community, when Cohen put money down on a house in Los Angeles.

The Forward said Stewart (formerly Jonathan Stuart Liebovitz) "may have done more to turn public opinion against the Iraq war ... than any other media figure in America today." And Johansson, the Forward says, "seems to have cured Woody Allen of his shiksa fetish," referring to Allen's previous preference, in Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, for non-Jewish female leads. Johansson, the daughter of a Danish father and a Jewish mother with Bronx roots, starred in Allen's last two films, Match Point and Scoop.

Some obvious candidates have never made the list, like New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

"He's so deracinated," said Goldberg. "He doesn't do anything Jewish."

Ditto Alan Greenspan, who, Goldberg said, was, before his retirement, "probably the most powerful Jew in the world, but doesn't do anything Jewish."

Which brings us back to George Allen.

When, in August, George Allen used the term "macaca" to refer to an Indian-American cameraman at one of his campaign appearances, the Forward, aware that the term was a North African Jewish slang insult for dark-skinned Africans, investigated. Soon after, the Forward revealed that, in fact, Allen's mother was a Tunisian Jew, which, under Jewish law, makes Allen Jewish. Allen, who was raised Presbyterian, responded clumsily to the news, and it may have cost him.

But the Forward, in adding him to its list, drew a broader lesson: "What Allen, 54, ultimately makes of the discovery, only time will tell. But Allen's back-story - the tale of how his mother, Etty, a Tunisian-born Jew, escaped the Nazis and vowed to leave behind her Jewishness - offers a sobering lesson for all of us. Nobody knows how many thousands or millions of Jews decided during World War II to discard the identity that Hitler had pronounced a capital crime. Some have since returned to their origins. Others never looked back. All of them are part of us, even the junior senator from Virginia."

Jonathan Tilove writes for the Newhouse News Service.

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