As I write this, the day after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation as governor of New York, I’m wondering if the mainstream press will continue to ignore the “Jewish angle.”
After all, the loonies have already marked out their territory. The ever-reliable David Duke home page already displays an article claiming that the “head pimp” of the escort service of which Spitzer was apparently a valued customer is an American Jew with Israeli citizenship named Mark Brener. So stay tuned.
But is there a legitimate “Jewish angle” here? Is Spitzer’s Jewishness significant in explaining the rise and fall of the crusading attorney general, whose war against corruption earned him the nickname “Eliot Ness?”
Let’s consider the evidence.
Spitzer’s family history unfolds along the classic plot-line of Jewish assimilation into America’s social and economic elite. His paternal grandparents were Galician Jews, born in Tluste, the very shtetl in which, during the 1730s, the young Baal Shem Tov began to distinguish himself as a healer of souls. His maternal grandparents — the Goldhabers — were born in 1890s Palestine, whether among the traditional “old yishuv” or among the Zionist newcomers, public records do not say.
At any rate, the Spitzer grandparents — Morris and Molly — immigrated to America in the early 1920’s, among the last groups of Eastern European Jews to make it before the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 closed the doors to Jews, Greeks, and Slavs alike.
Spitzer’s father, Bernard, in the classic “second generation” story, rose from Lower East Side poverty to make millions in the New York real estate world. His mother, Anne, became a professor of literature. The couple raised their three kids in the luxurious surroundings of the Bronx’s exclusive Riverdale section. All the Spitzer kids were educated in elite (“non-sectarian”) private schools, earned degrees from Ivy League Universities, and became accomplished professionals in the third-generation American Jewish prestige careers — law and medicine.
Following a pattern reproduced countless times by Jewish immigrants from Germany to the Russian and Ottoman empires, the Spitzers embraced America, were talented enough to achieve notable success, and in the freedom from the past made available in the New World, more or less left behind whatever Jewish traditions had remained from the Old.
A New York Times profile of 2006 tells us what we might have expected — that young Eliot “did not have a Bar Mitzvah.” When the time came to choose a life-partner, Eliot married a non-Jewish professional colleague — Silda Wall — who was raised in North Carolina as a Southern Baptist. In the home of Silda and Eliot Spitzer, the Times profile informs us, “the holidays of both religions” were celebrated, but there was “no rigorous adherence” to either faith.
Finally, as the father of three girls, Spitzer never had to take a stand for or against the bottom-line act of Jewish identification — the circumcision of sons.
To all appearances, then, Eliot Spitzer is a “happens-to-be” Jew, like the overwhelming majority of American Jewish descendants of the migration era. Like so many others, he is unashamed of his Jewish ancestry and does not try to hide his background. But he also finds in it nothing particularly salient or personally meaningful; certainly nothing to self-consciously transmit to the next generation.
In fact, the most “Jewish” thing about Eliot Spitzer — of which even he himself may not be aware — is his passion for social justice that yielded, first, a principled political liberalism, and then, as an extension of his politics, a career in exposing the financial sins of the wealthy and privileged.
This Deuteronomic pursuit of justice has a rich modern Jewish genealogy. On one side it extends into the middle of the 19th century, as emancipated Central European Jews found in European social democracy an ideology that promised a society in which Jewishness would prove no barrier to personal fulfillment, financial success, and social achievement. The other side of his activist spirit may have roots closer to the revolutionary socialism that likely explains the birth of the Goldhaber grandparents in Ottoman Palestine.
At any rate, conscious Jewishness of any kind seems truly to have played only the most peripheral role in Spitzer’s personal and professional life. I suppose, then, that most journalists have excluded Spitzer’s Jewishness from their account of his downfall because his Jewishness is invisible to the naked eye.
After all, he is no bearded Chassid defrauding federal or state social service agencies for the benefit of his own community; he’s no yarmulked rebbe implicated in the sexual abuse of a generation of students; no flamboyant Jewish financier-philanthropist, with his name emblazoned on campus buildings at Brandeis or JTSA, caught with his hand in some Wall Street cookie jar.
Really, Spitzer is so thoroughly “American” that to call attention to his vestigial Jewishness in his time of public shame would seem a cruel exploitation of a “difference” which in fact makes no difference at all.
But there is this “Jewish angle” to the Spitzer saga, an angle that points uncomfortably past Spitzer to us, the larger community of richly identified American Jews. Spitzer’s scandal reminds us that moral corruption shows no respect for Jewish “party lines.” The list of recently exposed no-goodniks ranges from the extreme right of the Jewish religio-political spectrum to the extreme left, revealing no apparent favorites.
As if we really needed reminding, Eliot’s mess confirms that neither the “religious” nor the “secular” sector of American Jewry, however they might be defined, has any measurable monopoly on either moral virtue or vice. If the commonly drawn distinction between “religious” and “secular” makes no real difference in behavior, then, — particularly for those of us who claim to be “sanctifying the Name” in pursuit of Torah — this is surely a disturbing “Jewish angle” worth pondering!
But don’t expect The New York Times — or David Duke — to raise it!