Jewish Journal

DNC, ‘Daily Show’ and Davening

Jews make their mark at the Boston convention.

by Janine Zacharia

Posted on Jul. 29, 2004 at 8:00 pm

So an Orthodox Jew is not the Democratic vice presidential nominee this year, like in 2000. And the wife of the vice presidential nominee is not named Hadassah. Yet, despite the absence of such central Jewish characters at the 2004 Democratic National Convention this week, Jews -- young ones from California among them especially -- were visible and active in Boston this week in numbers.

In the hallways, down on the convention floor and in hotel lobbies, the buzz among Jewish activists was not over the presidential candidate John Kerry, but over a party resurgent.

A 12-year-old Jewish girl from Oakland, Ilana Wexler, brought down the house on Tuesday night with a peppy speech to delegates calling for a change in leadership. Wexler, who founded a grass-roots group called kidsforkerry.org, took on Vice President Dick Cheney for using an expletive several weeks back with Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.

"When our vice president had a disagreement with a Democratic senator, he used a really bad word. If I said that word, I would be put on a timeout. I think he should be put in a timeout," Wexler said to thunderous applause.

Outside the entrance to the Fleet Center was parked the temporary home of L.A. native and recent college graduate Lindsey Berman. She's the national bus tour manager for the Rock the Vote bus, which is roaming the country, sponsoring events aimed at persuading young people to register to vote and become more active in politics (see box).

Over at Boston University, Rob Kutner, 32, who spent several years living in Los Angeles, was busy mining speeches from the convention for comedic material that he could turn into jokes for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," which broadcast the entire week from Boston.

Gil Tamary, Washington correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 news, said he could not walk 10 feet without being stopped by someone saying, "Shalom," or some other Hebrew phrase after noticing the Hebrew on his microphone. Politicians flocked to a Jewish kickoff event Sunday night to tout their pro-Israel record (former congressman and chairman of this year's convention Bill Richardson), muse on shared U.S.-Israel values (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) and energize the crowd to get out the vote. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, encouraged young Jews to run for higher office. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York drew the loudest cheers.

On Monday night, perhaps only actor Ben Affleck got more stares on the Fleet Center floor than the gathering of more than two dozen Jews chanting the Book of Lamentations at the start of Tisha B'Av. And throughout the week there were more than 25 events sponsored by Jewish organizations including a party for young, Jewish professionals Wednesday night at Boston's Aria club sponsored by L.A. media mogul Haim Saban. On Monday, a lunch for Lieberman sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council conflicted with an American Israel Public Affairs Committee lunch for women congressional leaders, causing consternation among some who wanted to attend both and were forced to choose.

"It's a little sad sometimes that our organized Jewish community doesn't work in more concert," said Howard Welinsky of Los Angeles, who participated in the drafting of the Democratic platform.

Welinsky attended the convention with other Los Angeles Jews, among them Carmen Warschaw, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Barbara Yaroslavsky.

Of all the events, the Tisha B'Av gathering was most striking. Right after former President Bill Clinton wrapped up his remarks Monday night, and the thousands packed onto the floor and into the seats up high filtered out to the evening's festivities, the group, many wearing yarmulkes, others wearing baseball caps, gathered onto the floor of the stadium -- literally.

"It was a surreal experience to be sitting on the floor of the convention having a solemn service, while behind us was Ben Affleck and [the Rev.] Al Sharpton," said Kenneth Baer, 31, a former speechwriter for vice president Al Gore who volunteered to help review and rewrite remarks of speechmakers.

Amos Hochstein, 32, a former congressional staffer who now works for a political and governmental relations firm in Washington, said, "It was a remarkable moment that I could never expect as a Modern Orthodox Jew who is also active in American politics."

"To combine those two is such a powerful statement. I can't think of any other country in the world where you would find on the floor of the convention -- literally sitting on the floor of the convention -- only a moment after speeches by Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, you would hear people chanting Eicha [Lamentations] and davening maariv [evening service]. It was an extremely moving moment," Hochstein added.

Many there were focused on John Kerry and the prospects of him perhaps succeeding Bill Clinton as the Democratic Party leader and defeating President George W. Bush in November.

"I want to see him step up and lead the party," said Shana Tesler, 32, a lobbyist in Washington and a former Clinton White House staffer. "I think he's getting comfortable in this new role for himself."

The Daily Show's Kutner told The Journal in an interview that he was "frustrated" by Kerry.

"I don't think he has the best political instincts," he said. "He can't crystallize an issue into a focused message. He can't just answer a simple question with a simple message. It's his election and he's not taking it."

Asked if he thought Kerry could generate enthusiasm among voters, Kutner said, "No. But what he represents can."

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