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Jewish Journal

Kerry’s Jewish Roots

by Peter Ephross

February 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

First it was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Next it was Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander of NATO during the war in Kosovo. Now it's Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry whose Jewish roots are being reported.

Kerry? The Massachusetts senator, the quintessential WASP-y looking politician with an Irish-sounding name?

Yup.

Two of Kerry's grandparents were Jewish, it turns out.

Kerry, who is a practicing Catholic, said he has known for 15 years that his paternal grandmother was Jewish, but had unsuccessfully searched for news of his paternal grandfather's roots.

However, a genealogist hired by the Boston Globe found that Kerry's grandfather was born to a Jewish family in a small town in the Czech Republic.

"This is incredible stuff," Kerry told the Globe. "I think it is more than interesting. It is a revelation."

The records show that his grandfather, Frederick Kerry, was born as Fritz Kohn. He changed his name to Kerry in 1902, immigrated to the United States in 1905 -- and committed suicide in a Boston hotel in 1921.

Frederick Kerry's story highlights the Jewish experience of earlier generations, said Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna.

"What we are realizing is how significant was the trend toward conversion and abandonment of Judaism, for the sake of upward mobility, in an earlier era of America," said Sarna, the Braun professor of American Jewish history at the school in Waltham, Mass. "Given the quite significant anti-Semitism of the early 20th century and the evident obstacles that stood in the path to success, people simply changed their names and sloughed off their Judaism."

But that path wasn't always successful, Sarna said.

Kerry's grandfather's suicide apparently stemmed from financial troubles. But one could wonder if, by changing his name and identity, the man had cut himself off from any sense of community, Sarna said.

The Kerry story also might hold lessons for the present and future makeup of American Jewry, Sarna added. According to current statistics, millions of Americans like Kerry may have Jewish roots but don't consider themselves Jewish.

"The question is if that is going to be seen a century from now as a harbinger of where American Judaism is going," Sarna asked.

Of course, several people contact the American Jewish Historical Society every year asking for help in their search for Jewish roots.

The e-mails usually run along the lines of, "My name is Kelly Smith, but my grandmother's name was Sara Goldstein," said Michael Feldberg, the executive director of the historical society, which is based in New York.

Kerry said he had asked cousins and searched on the Internet, but had found only bits of information on his family history.

The news does not appear to have major political ramifications.

There was an initial hubbub when Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, learned in 1997 that three of her four grandparents were Jewish. The next time she was in Prague, Albright visited the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of her paternal grandparents are inscribed on a wall among thousands of Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust.

There was little political fallout from her discovery -- though when she dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process many Arab commentators called her a Zionist and said she had a pro-Israel bias.

Observers say the revelation about Kerry is unlikely to affect the 2004 presidential race.

"There's no question there's a lot of pride in a Jewish candidate and pride in family Jewish connections, but the American Jewish community is fairly mature in its political behavior," said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

As far as non-Jews go, "had it come out in 1953 instead of 2003, it would have been fatal to his presidential ambitions," Feldberg said, but not in today's world.

Kerry's revelation adds another Jewish flavor to the 2004 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who declared last month that he will seek the nomination, is an observant Jew.

Another contender, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, is married to a Jewish woman and is raising his children as Jews.

And Clark, who told the Forward recently that he is descended from "generations of rabbis," is also weighing a 2004 Democratic presidential bid.

"I wonder what this means for his Saturdays?" Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for Lieberman's campaign, joked about Kerry. "Regardless, at this rate, we should have a minyan at the debates."  

JTA correspondent Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

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