March 15, 2007
Jefferson was Jewish? Who knew?
On Feb. 28, The New York Times reported that Thomas Jefferson possibly had some Jewish ancestors.
Geneticists reporting in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology concluded that this Founding Father may have had a Sephardic Jew on one of the limbs of his family tree in the 15th century.
If they had only made this discovery when I was a kid, my parents would have probably let me stay home from school on Jefferson's birthday. If we had been Orthodox, I would have gotten to stay home for two days.
When I was growing up, my parents were always quick to point out proudly which famous people were Jewish. This applied to the rare Jewish athlete, to the occasional Jewish elected official and to the more common Jewish Hollywood personality. They knew which movie stars were Jewish, who had changed their names to non-Jewish names and whether they had married Jewish spouses. If someone was, say, only one-sixteenth Jewish but was nice, successful and famous, he was considered "Jewish."
They got excited when a Jew did something noteworthy -- like winning the Nobel Prize or becoming a senator. And they shook their heads sadly whenever a Jew did something notorious -- like committing a crime.
Theirs was the typical "is this good for the Jews?" attitude, and I believe this mind-set is still prevalent today. That's why some of us are kvelling about Jefferson possibly having some Jewish heritage.
It even got me wondering if maybe other Founding Fathers might have had Jewish ancestors. Maybe it wasn't a key that got struck by lightning when Ben Franklin was flying his kite. Maybe it was Ben's mezuzah. And I never liked thinking about young George Washington chopping down that cherry tree. It's a lot nicer to think of him planting trees -- in Israel.
Obviously, since the research came out, nobody is seriously suggesting that Jefferson changed his name from Jefferstein, or that his campaign slogan was, "He's not British, he's Yiddish" (or, more accurately because of his Sephardic roots, "He doesn't just represent the East, he represents the Mideast."). But I do think that because so few Jews are known for their role in American history, it's understandable for us to feel some extra pride about Jefferson, even if he was just "a little bit Jewish."
Does our pride about famous Jews mean we're insecure about our identity and have an irrational need for heroes? I don't think so.
It's natural for all minorities to be excited when a member of their group excels in something. I know they're not technically a minority, but it doesn't seem odd that many women are proud that Nancy Pelosi is the first woman Speaker of the House. (And I wouldn't be surprised if Italian Americans are proud of her, too). Would anybody fault an African American for being excited that a black man actually has a possibility of becoming president in the next election?
The good news is that -- like other minorities in America -- Jews have reached a point that we don't blindly support and celebrate people just because they're Jewish.
Years ago, if you had told me that a Jew would run for vice president some day and later try to run for president, I would have said that at least 99 percent of Jewish Americans would vote for him and always support him. But that isn't what happened with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Jews were understandably proud and excited when he first came on the national scene and ran for vice president. But when they learned of Lieberman's stands on certain issues, some Jews stopped supporting him.
And that's how it should be. They allowed themselves to be excited about his historical accomplishment but not about his politics. Similarly, just because not every woman plans on voting for Hillary Clinton and not every African American plans on voting for Barack Obama doesn't mean that they aren't thrilled that these two people have the opportunity to run for the office today.
So I don't think any of us should be ashamed about being excited that Jefferson -- or any famous person -- might have Jewish ancestors. I don't love everything about Jefferson. But it's fun to picture him bringing chicken soup to other Founding Fathers when they had colds.
And I have to smile as I wonder if he tried to insert a clause in the Declaration of Independence that would make it an inalienable right for grandmothers to complain if their grandchildren didn't write them often enough.
Lloyd Garver writes the Modern Times column for the Opinion page of cbsnews.com. He has also written and produced for television, including "The Bob Newhart Show," "Family Ties" and "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at email@example.com.