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George Allen looks to his roots while planting campaign seeds

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; C01

On Thursday night, George Allen, the former Republican Virginia governor and senator, addressed a Jewish retreat in Reston organized by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The mystical sect seeks to hasten the arrival of the Messiah by persuading nonobservant Jews -- like, say, Allen -- to adopt Orthodox rituals.

They often do this by sending young Hasidic men with full-brimmed fedoras into the street to ask passersby, "Ya Jewish?" and invite them into a Mitzvah Tank -- a vehicle often adorned with the wizened visage of their spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The Lubavitch didn't need to search for Allen, who is expected to challenge Democrat Jim Webb for his old Senate seat in 2012 and is on a political rehabilitation tour. Allen, who discovered his Jewish roots during his failed 2006 bid, came to them.

At about 6 p.m., Allen climbed into what amounted to a stationary Mitzvah Tank: a ballroom of the Reston Hyatt-Regency hotel, where a schedule of morning workshops included "What You Always Wanted to Know About Judaism But Were Afraid to Ask," and "Men's Beginners' Services" ("Do you ever feel lost in the synagogue? Does the Hebrew liturgy swim before your eyes?").

The retreat-goers prepared for Allen's evening keynote address with a Scotch tasting ("Our sincerest thanks to Shopper's Vineyard Wine and Spirits") and then tucked into a glatt kosher meal of squash soup, grilled chicken and vegetables. Allen and his wife, Susan, joined the audience for dinner, with the politician mingling with Virginia delegations and eagerly shaking hands.

"His mother's Jewish; we definitely view him wholeheartedly as a fellow Jew," said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of the movement's Jewish Learning Institute. Mintz said it was not for him to judge how Allen "chooses to celebrate his Jewishness."

The rabbi drew a connection between Allen's visit and the work of the Mitzvah Tanks.

"The idea of the Mitzvah Tank is to inspire and awaken Jewish awareness," he said. "The fact that George feels fully comfortable with his Jewish identity and his Jewish origin sends a strong message to the community."

Shortly after 7 p.m., attendees said, Allen, wearing a navy suit and blue-and-yellow tie, rose to the stage and addressed the 600 children of Israel. He talked about what it was like to be the child of a football god.

"You can learn a lot from football -- level playing field, equal opportunity regardless of background, meritocracy, et cetera," Allen said, according to prepared remarks. Allen, whose late father coached the Washington Redskins, often invokes the mystery of the gridiron. But that's not exactly what this crowd came to hear. After some throat-clearing, Allen got to the point.

"Let me paint for you a picture of the family revelation and how it transpired," he said.

He talked about his mother, Henriette "Etty" Allen, who, unbeknownst to him, was brought up as a Jew in North Africa. Over breakfast one day, he quizzed her about her ancestry, which had become a needling topic of inquiry in the senator's 2006 reelection campaign.

"I then followed up and asked if any of her family way back were of the Jewish religious faith? I asked my mother about the possible Portuguese and Jewish roots, I simply said, 'Is there anything to this, many centuries ago?' " Allen recalled. After more prodding, he said, she revealed her own Jewishness, which she had hid for decades.

(Back in 2006, Etty Allen told a Washington Post reporter that she explained to her son that she had concealed her roots for fear of anti-Semitism, but also because her future husband didn't want her to tell his mother. Plus, she said, he wanted to be a football coach. "How many Jewish coaches are there?")

Allen said he had promised "on Pop-pop's head" that he would tell no one, referring to his mother's father. "My mother then haltingly told me that 'Pop-pop was Jewish.' I was surprised."

Allen said it was this promise that accounted for some awkward moments during the 2006 campaign, when he answered a question about his possible Jewish heritage at a campaign debate by saying, "My mother's French Italian, with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."

In front of the crowd in Reston, Allen described the discovery of his Jewish roots as "interestingly positive." Then, according to the prepared text, he added: "I found those facts interesting because I majored in history and have been a leader for nanotechnology."

Allen concluded his speech to a standing ovation. Mintz climbed the stage and presented Allen with a carved shofar, explaining its symbolism and its use on the High Holy Days. Allen was visibly moved, attendees said, then returned to the microphone and talked about how connected he felt to his Pop-pop. Then he blew the shofar.

Baila Olidort, editor in chief of the Lubavitch News Service, was impressed.

"For someone who has never blown shofar before," she said, "he did well."

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