Jewish Journal

The Jews who influenced Sen. Al Franken

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Apr. 10, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken speaks at the USC Warschaw Lecture. Photo by Jon Vidar

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken speaks at the USC Warschaw Lecture. Photo by Jon Vidar

Alan Stuart “Al” Franken, satirist, comedy writer, talk-show host and now U.S. senator from Minnesota, was by turns reflective, ethnic and funny as he tackled the topic “Public Service: How the Jewish Tradition Has Influenced One U.S. Senator” during a recent evening at USC.

Befitting a public servant and the academic environment, Franken left his cutting barbs in his suitcase and waxed mellow about the three most influential Jews in his life.

Host of the April 3 event was USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, which invited Franken to deliver the annual Carmen and Louis Warschaw Lecture.

The three men who shaped Franken — a liberal stalwart, committed Jew and now public servant — were his father, his rabbi and a professor turned politician.

His dad, Joe Franken, was a printing salesman, and though “he wasn’t what you would call wildly successful, he was … a nice guy, a gentle guy and, maybe most important, a funny guy,” Al Franken said.

He was also a Republican, who voted religiously against Franklin D. Roosevelt and later for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. Because the younger Franken adored his father, he also was a Republican.

The change came when Joe Franken and his two sons were watching the civil rights protests of the 1960s on TV and saw Southern sheriffs turn dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators.

“And my dad, who had been alive during the Holocaust, would look at that, would turn to my brother and me and say, ‘That’s wrong. No Jew could be for that,’ ” Al Franken recalled. At that point, father and sons became lifelong Democrats.

The second Jew who influenced Al Franken was Rabbi Max Shapiro of Temple Israel in Minneapolis.

In his sermons, “whatever he talked about, the underlying theme was always the same. … Rabbi Shapiro always used to say that it wasn’t enough just to be just. You have to do justice,” Al Franken said, adding, “These aren’t just words to live by. They’re a call for action.”

The third Jew was Paul Wellstone, a political science professor, who “in his free time did justice” — meeting with low-income working people, fighting for better health, better housing and day care centers.    

Wellstone went on to become a U.S. senator from Minnesota. He died in a plane crash in 2002, and six years later Franken was elected to his mentor’s old Senate seat.

To sum things up, he said, “Like my dad and like Paul, I’m not formal in my religious views, but I’m deeply grateful for the religious and cultural traditions that have shaped me, and for the values that have carried through the generations, and for the role models I have known who have lived those values so well.

“These traditions, and these values, and these people — they have taught me how to be a better Jew, and how to be a better person, and how to be a better senator.” 

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