How Jewish Is Al Franken?
The Minnesota Supreme Court just declared that Democrat Al Franken is the winner in the Minnesota Senate race, beating out incumbent Norm Coleman.
That’s the perfect opportunity to explore just how the new senator from Minnesota views his faith.
“I don’t think Minnesota is ready for a gentile in this seat,” Franken told reporters while campaigning against Coleman, who is also Jewish.
In fact, the only time Franken and Coleman were able to bury their very sharp hatchets was when both appeeared at a pro-Israel rally back in January, as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported reported.:
Both Franken and Coleman were invited speakers at a pro-Israel rally yesterday in the Twin Cities area, at which Minnesota politicians from across the political spectrum all made appearances. The two candidates even shook hands.
“You can imagine how rare it is for me to agree with everything Senator Coleman says,” Franken said to laughter and applause. Then after pledging to support Israel as a U.S. Senator, Franken joked to Coleman: “That’s something we might disagree on.”
The best in-his-own-words take on this question comes from a 2003 interview Franken did with The Jewish Journal. Here it is:
Q & A with Al Franken
Al Franken, “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, political commentator and satirist made headlines recently when the Fox News Channel sued him for using the term “Fair and Balanced” in the title of his new book, “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look at The Right” (Dutton, 2003). Fox eventually dropped the suit, but not before Franken’s tome attacking conservative arguements hit the top of the best-seller lists, where it remains today.
Franken spoke to The Journal from his house in New York about the California recall, growing up Jewish in Minnesota and the nonissue of a Jew becoming president.
Jewish Journal: What are your thoughts on the recall and our new governor?
Al Franken: Well, I wish him all the best. I know there are a lot of Democrats who are bitter about the whole recall process, I didn’t necessarily think it was proper, but his voters have spoken, and now it is time for people to coalesce around this guy and try to solve California’s problems.
JJ: I thought that you would come with a much more partisan line. From reading your book I thought you would see it more like the 2000 election where the Republicans “stole” it.
AF: There is an aspect to that here. I did listen to him [Schwarzenegger] during the campaign, and he never said anything. It was unbelievable to me. It was like watching a movie, because politicians in movies can’t address specific issues, because the movie has to exist in sort of forever time. His speeches could have been from any year, any time. [Breaks into Schwarzenegger accent] “We have got dem for de people, in Caleeforneeah”—oh, I can’t do him.
But I do have one specific worry, that the men in California—and I hope they don’t take it this way—will see this as a license to grope Maria Shriver. And you know, she is very attractive, but guys, just because she seems to think it is OK, it is not open season on Maria….
JJ: In your book, you write that your father was a lifelong Republican who switched party loyalties in 1964 because [then-presidential candidate] Barry Goldwater didn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act, and he told you that Jews shouldn’t be against civil rights. Can you tell us a little about growing up Jewish and explain how your Judaism shaped your politics?
AF: I grew up Jewish in Minnesota, in a place where we were a distinct minority. Minneapolis had been a center of anti-Semitism, in the ‘30s, ‘40s and 50s. My mom sold real estate, and she was very aware that there was redlining in Minneapolis for Jews. That awareness, of actual institutional racism by banks and Realtors, made us even more keenly aware of the importance of civil rights laws. So in 1964, when Goldwater was against the Civil Rights Act, my dad, who was like a Jacob Javits Republican, became a Democrat and never looked back. I very much identify with my dad, and that made me a Democrat at age 13.
JJ: I read that your wife is Catholic, and save for a seder once a year your life is low on Jewish practices. Yet, Jewish references and Jewish experiences appear repeatedly in your book. Can you tell me a little bit about your Jewish life today? How much does Judaism figure into your daily experience?
AF: My wife is a fallen Roman Catholic…. We don’t belong to a shul, and my kids have really been raised with no formal religious education, but they definitely consider themselves culturally Jewish. Partly it is growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was quite the opposite of my experience.
My wife—every year we have a Chanukah dinner and she makes the best latkes and ... the best brisket on the Upper West Side.
But my kids definitely consider themselves Jewish, have very Jewish senses of humor and went to a high school that was two-thirds Jewish.
And the most important aspect of this—we did go to a Reform temple when I was a kid, and my parents were not particularly devout, but we were taught that there was a certain ethical base to our religion that was the essence of our Judaism, and I think my kids have grown up with that.
JJ: In an interview in 2000, you were asked whether the country was ready for a Jewish president. Now it seems that if any of these Democratic front-runners get elected, we won’t be able to escape having a Jewish president. Do you think that America is moving to a place where religion doesn’t matter anymore, and why do you think so many Democrats are eager to be Jewish?
AF: Well, I think that it doesn’t hurt to be Jewish if you are a Democrat, because of fundraising. [John] Kerry is half-Jewish, [Wesley] Clark is half-Jewish, [Howard] Dean has a Jewish wife, [Joe] Lieberman is the whole boat. [John] Edwards is as goyish as you can get; [Al] Sharpton—not Jewish.
I think that the Lieberman candidacy was just a big nonevent in terms of how it affected people at the polls, which is great. It might be different if Lieberman was heading the ticket at this time. But even then I don’t think it would be that big an issue.
JJ: A lot of Jews might agree with you on being anti-Bush on social issues, but they appreciate his stance on Israel. They perceive him as being very supportive of Israel’s war against terror. Do you agree that Bush is a good friend to Israel?
AF: There is definitely a pro-Israel slant, which I basically agree with for Bush. I think that he just ignored Israel for a long time immediately after being elected because he didn’t want to get his hands dirty. He was basically doing everything that Clinton didn’t do. If Clinton had rolled up his sleeves and worked with Barak and tried to reach a settlement there, then Bush decided that the right thing to do was to do nothing.
As far as now supporting Israel, as I also write in the book, there is this odd alliance between the neo-cons, who are very pro-Israel, obviously, and the Christian right, which is very pro Israel. But the neo-cons are very pro-Israel because Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, and the religious right is for it because Jews need to be in Israel in order for Armageddon to happen, at which point we Jews will all die in a fiery death. I think that at that point the coalition between the neo-cons and the Christian Right will dissolve.
JJ: Before I read your book, I thought that it would be very funny on every single page, but there were a lot of chapters and there were a lot of pages in it where I thought that you were being deadly serious, almost to the point where it made me feel sad.
AF: Well—the Wellstone chapter.
JJ: The chapter about the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and even some of the arguments about why the tax cuts were bad and the terrorism chapter, etc. I don’t know if the book is being misrepresented. It is funny, but there are a lot of serious parts in it.
AF: I think that satire…. I don’t think that they [humor and seriousness] are incompatible at all. Even the funny parts are serious.
JJ: I read a Salon interview where you were asked whether your support for Clinton wavered during the impeachment, and you answered, joking I assume, that even during “Pardongate” you needed to give Clinton credit for the pardons he didn’t give, like to the Unabomber and Charles Manson.
In this book I didn’t find any such jokes about Clinton. It was more of a paean to him. Monica aside, is there is anything, in your estimation, that Clinton did that was wrong or at least questionable?
AF: Aside from Monica? Well I think that he might have been a bit aggressive on some of the campaign fundraising and he might have gone into Rwanda a little quicker, but basically I thought he had a really successful presidency.
JJ: Finally, what do you think Stuart Smalley would say about your book and your success?
AF: Well Stuart isn’t very political. He would say [in a nasal voice] “Well, good for Al. You know. It’s a big success, and I know him, and you know, good for him.”
Franken elaborated on his college years in an interview with Hillel, the organization for undergraduate Jewish student life:
Q:Tell us a little bit about Harvard in the ‘70s when you were there.
A: Well, I started in ‘69 and I was there until ‘73, and I was going through something of a transition at the time. We were in the middle of a war, so there was a lot of anti-war activity, so there was a lot of focus on that and a little less focus on academics, in some quarters, than maybe there should have been. It was kind of a, you know, the ‘60s. The end of the ‘60s, but the ‘60s, so there was pot, there was Frisbee, there were anti-war protesting, and then we also had to go to school. Every year, I studied less hard. My freshman year I actually was like a student, and then it just became clear to me, one, that I wasn’t going to be a scientist, which is sort of what I thought I was going to be, and then it sort of also became clear I was going to be a comedian. So there was slightly less motivation to be a real serious student, although I did the reading and stuff like that. I also met my wife there in Boston my freshman year, so I had a girlfriend.
Q: Were you involved in Jewish life?
A: There was a Hillel or something like that. I think it was Hillel. I wasn’t really involved that much at all. My girlfriend was a fallen Catholic. I considered myself Jewish, I had a lot of Jewish friends, obviously. Every once in a while I go to somebody or some place for a seder or something like that. I think I went to think Hillel once.