Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sarah Palin and Chabad share the same appeal

by Jonathan Marks

I'm getting a hunch the Republicans just might win for one reason alone, and it makes no sense, just like Chabad makes no sense to the Jewish elite.

That one reason is Sarah Palin. She reminds me of about a thousand different Chabad shluchot (the rebbe's women representatives). She's seems friendly, sexy (forgive me) in an Orthodox way, with that magnetism, optimism and accessibility that has made Chabad shluchot successful in 5,000 different locales, even though they are almost always considerably more right wing -- religiously and politically -- than their congregants and financial supporters.

Reform, Conservative and other Orthodox Jews don't get it. How is Chabad so successful in places where there are no Chasidim? Why do liberal Jews on New York's Upper West Side want to send their kids to Chabad preschools? Why do many hundreds of non-Chasidic, even non-Orthodox students at Harvard and State University of New York Binghamton, want to spend Friday night meals with these Chabad Sarah Palins, rather than the more mainstream, liberal Jews down the road? It makes no sense.

Don't get it, do you?

Who would you rather have a cup of coffee with on a bungalow porch -- a cup that can turn into a three-hour conversation -- Palin or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?

Pelosi and Sen. Hillary Clinton come across like the Queen of Spades of a nanny state -- school marms of a school you don't want to go to. Pelosi, in particular, seems like one of those sisterhood program chairs from a suburban temple whose calls you don't want to answer.

Palin seems like one of those Chabad women who don't have enough chairs at her table for all the non-Chabad women who'd take a plane or a subway to attend the next shluchot convention in Brooklyn's Crown Heights.

Something's happening, and you don't know what it is, do you, Nancy Pelosi?

And another thing: There are plenty of logical, rational reasons to abort America's relationship with Israel, the far left tells us, but Chabad doesn't abort and evangelicals (such as Palin) don't, either.

Rabbis who can't stop quoting Heschel or Soloveitchik don't get it.

Americans and Jews don't need another genius. We don't need another Herr Rabbi Doctor. We have enough "scholars," believe it or not.

We don't have enough human beings who'd rather rock a Down syndrome baby to sleep than abort it; human beings who can relate to a flunking child or the stuffiness of the sophisticates, parents who don't give a damn who's in the top shiur or who made law review.

We have too many of the best and the brightest, the wise and the brilliant, who can't communicate (and who, in the end, maybe aren't really the best or all that brilliant.)

The genius of Chabad is delivering their message in a down-home way, much as Palin did at the convention.

There are others outside of Chabad who know how to do it, too. Blu Greenberg, for one, the godmother of Orthodox feminism, is as smart and wise as anyone I've ever met, but like a Chabad woman, she doesn't enter a room like she wants you to know what she got on her SATs (or BJEs).

Her voice and manner are gentle; her visions for Judaism are prophetic and compelling, all the more so because her Judaism is poetic (she's a published poet, after all), not like Judaism's angry left, whose religion has all the appeal of a term paper, all about "J," "P," Deutero-Isaiah; the kind who can't look at any biblical verse with being "troubled" by it.

Chabad women know what really troubles people, and it ain't Deutero-Isaiah.

In 1950, all American Jews heard of liberal Judaism (that's Conservatives, too) but almost no one heard of Chabad. Chabad seemed a relic of history. Liberal Judaism was ascendant, inevitable. The rebbe's Chabad was as fringe religiously as Palin's conservative ancestors were then on the fringe politically.

Who would have figured that in 2008, liberal pews in most of America would be emptier than their rabbis would like, while everyone has now heard of Chabad? Men and women from Chabad are all over the continent, all over the planet, raising fortunes (without charging shul membership fees), getting men to put on tefillin, getting women to go to mikvah -- men and women who, if not for Chabad, wouldn't. It makes no sense.

Chabad women, like Palin, don't look at Judaism or the United States and then look at the world to worry, "Why do they hate us?" They don't blame Judaism or America first.

They are happy warriors. They don't think "bitterness" is what motivates religious people, as Sen. Barack Obama said with condescension. You come away feeling that these kind of women understand religion, they love America and religion like they love their kids, troubles and all, feeling blessed every step of the way.

The high-salaried great scholars of the other denominations, none of whom went to the University of Idaho, are very good at conducting studies, at going on high-priced retreats, at developing goalposts that can be moved to allow past failures to score.

Chabad women don't conduct studies. They cook a chicken (or Palin a moose) and invite you over on Friday night. And college students, middle-class families, international businessmen want to be there.

At the beginning of these successful relationships between Chabad and their guests, theology and politics have little or nothing to do with it. A lot of Palin's appeal has nothing to do with her theology or politics, either.

The other party and denominations are trying to figure it out. Maybe if they could get a grant. Maybe if they could find someone with whom they can dialogue.

Chabad women and Palin don't dialogue. They talk. And they don't talk down.

They win. Makes no sense, does it?

Jonathan Marks is associate editor of The Jewish Week in New York.

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