The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do Jewish New Yorkers care about identity politics? Jerry Nadler hopes so.

Facing a competitive reelection race, New York City’s last Jewish representative in the U.S. House bets his faith still counts for something

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) poses for a photo with a voter during a campaign stop at a Fairway in New York. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Jerry Nadler was fishing for votes outside Zabar’s, that purveyor of bagels and babka on Manhattan’s West Side, when Carole Kaufmann stopped to take the congressman’s campaign flier.

“A heymisher man,” said Kaufmann, 86, using the Yiddish word for familiar as she admired the 75-year-old Democrat in his blue suit, red striped tie and sensible shoes. Nadler is Jewish, and Kaufmann likes that about him.

“I want him around,” Kaufmann said. “He represents us.”

Nadler’s Jewishness has taken on new importance since redistricting has left him in a pickle, pitting him in a showdown against another powerful Democrat, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, in a new district that melds his West Side and her East Side.

If Nadler’s 30-year reign in Congress ends, his campaign recently warned in a fundraising appeal, New York City would lose its “last remaining” Jewish representative — a seemingly incongruent decline for a city that is home to more Jewish people than anywhere in the world outside Israel.

When Nadler was elected to Congress in 1992, he was among eight Jewish House members representing the city. He has never felt the need to play identity politics — not for his own benefit anyway. But now, 46 years after first being elected to the state assembly, Nadler is playing the mensch card.

“Jerry Nadler isn’t just Jewish, he’s a person who lives and breathes Tikkun Olam,” said the campaign’s fundraising appeal, invoking the Hebrew phrase for repairing the world. “Can you chip in $36 to help Jerry fight for our Jewish and Democratic values in Congress?”

Nadler’s appeal not only reminded his supporters that he is Jewish but also that in a race between two well-known liberals in 2022, his Jewishness matters.

“Of course it matters,” Nadler said in an interview, between spoonfuls of chicken soup at a restaurant near his Upper West Side apartment. “I wouldn’t talk about it if it didn’t matter.”

“It would be very unfortunate if there was no Jewish representation from New York,” Nadler said. “As it would if there was no Latino representation or no Black representation.” He was not suggesting that someone like Maloney, a Presbyterian, can’t represent Jewish interests. “Non-Blacks can support civil rights,” he said, by way of comparison. “Nonetheless, no one would argue that you shouldn’t have Black representation because others can do it for them.”

The race is expected to be close and could hinge not only on how a third Democrat, Suraj Patel, performs but also on who turns out for a primary in late August, when many New Yorkers decamp to Zip codes known more for sand than sidewalks.

Maloney has dismissed Nadler’s faith-based appeal, describing it to the New York Times as a “divisive tactic.” She has highlighted her own record on Jewish issues and showcased an endorsement from Elie Wiesel’s son, Elisha. (She also committed what for some was an unsavory faux pas when she referred to Barney Greengrass, the 114-year old Jewish deli on the West Side, as “Grassroots.”)

Divisive or not, it’s unclear whether Nadler’s faith-based appeal matters enough to draw votes in the new district, which is heavily Jewish. In interviews on the East and West sides, Jewish voters said that although they value diversity, they do not generally feel compelled to back their own. “I’m not voting for him because he’s Jewish,” said Roy Moskowitz, 67, a construction administrator, who called out “We love Jerry!” when he saw Nadler on Broadway. “I’m voting for him because he’s thoughtful.”

Nadler’s constituents support him because he’s a steady liberal voice, a defender of tenants’ rights, women’s rights and civil rights. He has been around long enough that they run into him at the drugstore, at synagogue and even at funerals, as Stella Gold once did. “I don’t have to wonder where he stands or what he means,” said Gold, 91, a retired social worker, as she pushed her walker outside her West Side apartment complex. “He has been very reliable.”

That he’s Jewish, Gold said, “doesn’t hurt.”

Nadler was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn, the son of a poultry farmer turned auto parts salesman. At Stuyvesant High School, he developed a passion for politics alongside Dick Morris, the future Clinton adviser turned conservative pundit. Morris remembers coaching Nadler on the debate team and helping him win student elections. “Jerry was Talmudic in his defense of his positions,” Morris said in an interview. “He resisted the slogan and insisted on long-winded briefs. He basically talked like a Supreme Court justice.”

After high school, Nadler, Morris and their crew — known as the “West Side Kids” — built a political organization as they protested the Vietnam War, organized tenant associations and won low-level Democratic Party posts. Nadler became a fan of Bella Abzug, the feminist firebrand who was elected to Congress in 1970. He was impressed that Abzug could appeal to some voters with an antiwar message and others as “a Jewish mama” with her “gefilte fish and matzoh ball recipes.”

In recent years, Nadler has drawn attention leading the House Judiciary Committee hearings for President Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings. It was at one of those proceedings that C-SPAN captured him carrying a Zabar’s shopping bag into a hearing room. A Nadler aide, asked at the time about the bag’s contents, said, “A babka and the Constitution, what else?” — a quip that inspired approving nods on the West Side’s nosh circuit and beyond.

Now, outside Zabar’s, it was Trump and other concerns — that drove the questions voters put to Nadler in their uniquely New York way.

“What are you gonna do about guns?” one woman asked, her tone suggesting she was in no mood for a Talmudic answer.

“The Democrats need to get their messaging together,” another said.

A man snarled: “Tell me Merrick Garland’s gonna bring charges against that . . .” — and used a term less delicate than “former president.”

“I can’t tell you that,” Nadler said, quietly. Then: “I need your vote August 23.”

“Oh I always vote for you,” the man said, softening. He smiled, then headed toward the cheese counter.

The decline in Jewish House members in New York reflects the city’s demographic evolution since the 1950s, when 2 million Jews — about 25 percent of the population — lived in the five boroughs. That number has dropped to just over 1 million, or about 12 percent of the population, as Jews have died off or left for places like Great Neck, Miami and Los Angeles. At the same time, other groups have emerged. Of the city’s 13 current House members, a majority are Black, Latino or Asian.

“This city’s more African, more Caribbean, more Asian, more South American, more Mexican, more East Asian,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant and an Orthodox rabbi. “Jerry Nadler is known among the people who voted for him. The question is, are there enough of those people left?”

Over the years, Nadler’s Jewish former House colleagues from New York have faded away. There was Queens’s Gary Ackerman, whose retirement ended his annual D.C. fundraiser that featured corned beef sandwiches shipped from New York. Ackerman was succeeded by Grace Meng, the first Asian American member of New York’s delegation. Scandal eliminated Brooklyn’s Anthony Weiner. His district, subsequently redrawn, is now shared by Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke, two Black Democrats. After 16 terms, the Bronx’s Eliot Engel was ousted in 2020 by Jamaal Bowman, another Black progressive.

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“The history of urban politics is always about change and competition among groups and Jews are in the process of losing the competition in New York,” Sheinkopf said. “What you have is a lack of identity of Jews as Jews. And they don’t have the power to ensure that there’s more than one Jewish congressman. It’s astounding.”

That is not to say that Jewish people no longer have muscle in a city where words like “putz,” “schmuck” and “schlep” are a ubiquitous part of the soundtrack. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, is a Brooklyn-born Jew. The city’s highest-ranking financial officer, Comptroller Brad Lander, is Jewish. And Jewish challengers are running in other New York congressional races.

But Jews’ collective strength in the city has been diluted by fragmentation. While Manhattan Jews are largely secular and liberal, the most significant increase in the city’s Jewish population has occurred in Brooklyn, where conservative Orthodox communities are growing. As a result, Nadler can provoke a range of reactions depending on which Jewish people you’re talking to. In Reform circles, he’s lauded for supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Orthodox, meanwhile, have chided him for endorsing President Barack Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

“I’d rather have someone with a big cross around their neck who is there for the Jewish people than someone who is quote unquote Jewish and wears a big yarmulke but isn’t there,” said Dov Hikind, an Orthodox leader from Brooklyn whose battles with Nadler date back to when both were in the state legislature. “Jerry Nadler is missing in action.”

Nadler cited as evidence of his activity his opposition to acts of antisemitism, as well as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement intended to push Israel into halting its occupation of the West Bank. And he has served as dean of the House’s Jewish caucus. Yet his electoral fate may have less to do with his faith than his ability to connect, late in his career, with Democrats on the East Side who may be more familiar with his main opponent.

“Great to see you! Welcome to the East Side!”

It was a Tuesday in June, and Carolyn Maloney was greeting New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) for the benefit of a scrum of cameras. In fact, they’d been campaigning together all morning — first on the West Side, now on the East. Nadler was there, too, slowed by an arthritic knee.

As long-serving reps from neighboring districts, Maloney and Nadler have been allies whose reelection victories have been as predictable as alternate-side-of-the-street parking. Now, as competitors for the redistricted seat, they looked like a divorced couple at a gathering of extended family — standing a few feet apart while ignoring each other. Maloney, 76, is older than Nadler but more mobile. During this particular joint appearance she had all but attached herself to the governor’s hip as they searched for voters in the thicket of reporters, politicians and campaign aides while Nadler did his best to keep up.

“She’s got more energy,” said David Vlahov, 69, an East Sider who stopped to take in the spectacle, explaining why he prefers Maloney. “She looks like she has more time on the clock.”

As far as faith and representation goes, “It would be good to have someone who takes off Yom Kippur,” Vlahov said. But not having a Jewish representative doesn’t stop Jewish New Yorkers from flexing their political clout. “There are still a lot of Jewish voters,” he said. “We won’t let you off the hook.”

That Nadler is attempting a faith-based appeal is, perhaps, a sign of how hard it is to distinguish himself from Maloney. They both chair powerful committees (Judiciary Committee for him, Oversight Committee for her). They are in sync on most contemporary issues — each gets top marks from groups such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood — though Nadler goes out of his way to point out differences. Unlike Maloney, he opposed the Iraq War and Patriot Act. (She also opposed the Iran nuclear deal.)

“She’s good and he’s good,” said Bernice Fleischer, 75, a music teacher, as she walked her Shetland sheepdog on West End Avenue. “It’s a sad choice to make.”

And then there are some potential voters who can’t be bothered.

“I need your vote,” Nadler said to a man who kept walking as the congressman fished for votes one afternoon in Chelsea, a West Side neighborhood that has grown more affluent as younger generations of professionals have moved in. Another raised his hand to signal he didn’t want his flier. A woman stopped, but she was a French tourist. Another smiled as she walked by.

“Here’s your bread and butter, right here,” an aide told Nadler as two more women approached, both senior citizens. One wore a leopard-spotted jacket echoing the pattern on her eyeglass frames.

“I don’t need that,” Joan Rose, 87, said when the congressman offered her a flier. “I know you.”

“It’s Nadler,” said her friend, Sharon Santana, 74. “He’s a staple.”

A bit later, Nadler traveled uptown to Fairway, a supermarket on Broadway where for decades he has trolled for votes. He met Nathan Bahny, 69, who bemoaned the mishegoss — that’s Yiddish for craziness — of the congressman’s duel with Maloney.

​“Both good people,” Bahny said, considering his choice as he offered an unsolicited description of​ ​his expansive book and CD collection and referred to himself as a “stereotypical Upper West Side Jewish liberal.”

So Nadler’s Jewishness would be the deciding factor?

“No,” Bahny said. “I don’t vote for religion.” Instead he described a connection with Nadler that, in New York’s version of tribal loyalty, may be as important. “He’s my across-the-street neighbor,” he said. Before moving on, he promised the congressman his vote.