For Sen. Allen, Questions of Much More Than Faith

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

Is Sen. George Allen a Jew? Can a man be a Jew if he doesn't want to be one? Is being Jewish a state of mind or a matter of blood?

Does it matter if Allen is a Jew, and if so, why? Or is the only thing that matters how he responds to the revelation? (In which case, why did he brag to the Richmond Times-Dispatch the other day about having eaten ham for lunch?)

Are the questions raised by the revelation that Allen's mother was Jewish so complicated as to require a Talmudic scholar to unravel them?

And is it true, by the way, that Jews like to answer questions with questions?

As Adam Sandler taught us years ago with his "Chanukah Song," there are a lot of famous somewhat-Jews in this country. Among Jews, this is something of a parlor game -- trying to figure out who is and who isn't. Recent election cycles have burst with news about the Jewish connections of prominent pols -- so much so, it seemed not a question of whether they'd find out they were part Jewish, but when . John Kerry, it turned out, had Jewish grandparents, Howard Dean is married to a Jew, Dennis Kucinich was dating a Jew, and Hillary Clinton had a Jewish stepgrandfather. Madeleine Albright (who wasn't running for anything) found out her parents were Jewish. Presidential would-be Wesley Clark spoke enough about having Jewish lineage that he was accused of pandering.

The editors of the Jewish newspaper the Forward say it was in this spirit that they wrote their story last month about Allen's mother having been born Jewish.

"Our original question was just gossip," says Forward Editor in Chief J.J. Goldberg. He interrupts himself: "Scarlett Johansson." Jewish? "I swear to God."

It's understandable why a newspaper with a sizable Jewish readership would care about Allen's Jewish heritage in the midst of his reelection race in Virginia (and given his rumored presidential aspirations), but why does the larger world care?

Let's try turning the question on its head. Why should anyone be offended upon being asked if he or she has Jewish ancestry? Does acting huffy in response to such a question (as Allen did when first asked, during a debate this week) imply that one believes there is something wrong with being Jewish?

Or did Allen think that the questi oner was implying that there was something wrong with being Jewish, since the questioner brought it up just after asking how he had learned the French slur "macaca," which some have suggested could have come from his mother, who was raised in French-speaking Tunisia, and who was, as it turns out, born Jewish . . . ?

Oy.

The most fascinating element of this story -- what makes it even more than a heartbreaking family drama -- has been Allen's response. After getting mad during the debate and accusing his questioner of casting "aspersions," he issued a statement saying he took "great pride" in his Jewish heritage. But then he said in an interview: "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops."


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