Why Are American Jews So Liberal? Sarah Silverman’s Sister Has Some Answers

Why Are American Jews So Liberal? Sarah Silverman’s Sister Has Some Answers

A liberal progressive Jew writes a memoir touting the benefits of adoption, but can't keep her hypocritical political beliefs from undermining a well-intentioned message.
Bethany Mandel
By

What does life look like when an individual is completely driven by choices made through the lens of a progressive worldview? Most who subscribe to it fit a stereotype: single, childless, and proud of it. Comedian Sarah Silverman, raised by progressive parents, embodies the progressive woman image. Having recently and passionately endorsed Bernie Sanders in a viral Facebook video, the vulgar but funny Silverman is a darling of the feminist Left. Her sister Susan doesn’t fit quite the profile, though: a married mother of five, and a rabbi at that. Despite Susan’s more traditional household, she too has let her progressive politics guide every major life decision, from marriage to motherhood.

Political observers on the Right often wonder why the vast majority of Jews in America fall on the other side of the political spectrum. A father of the neoconservative movement, Norman Podhoretz, wrote an entire book on the subject, attempting to answer the question “Why Are Jews Liberal?

If the Democratic Party is the one that boos God at their convention and has a president so hostile to the Jewish state that the most recent ambassador wrote a scathing tell-all about the breakdown in relations between the two countries — while both the American president he criticized and the Israeli prime minister he served were still in office — why don’t Jews vote in their own self-interest?

Unfortunately for the Jewish community, a great deal of religious observance has been replaced with the worship of social-justice movements and a belief that tikkun olam (translated as “repairing the world”) is what Judaism now requires of us. Judaism in America falls within three major branches: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Reform and Conservative make up the bulk of the Jewish population, though it is shrinking thanks to intermarriage and low birth rates. Because its demographic trends are opposite of their more religiously liberal peers, Orthodoxy’s share of the American Jewish population is rising.

The Failure of Liberal Judaism

Now Susan Silverman has written a book that perfectly encapsulates the Jewish-liberal worldview, billed as a comic look at family life and her road to adoption of two sons from Ethiopia. Silverman’s effort, Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, is a telling view into a progressive religious household, especially one within the Jewish community.

What drew Susan to her husband Yosef was his activism, from fighting apartheid in South Africa to internal Israeli politics. It was Yosef who drew Silverman to an active role in the Jewish community, eventually leading her to rabbinical school within the most liberal (religiously and politically) stream of American Judaism, the Reform movement. She wrote of her decision to enroll:

Suddenly, in that tiny windowless office, as I packed my Shabbat clothes and packing my work outfit into a bag, I thought: the Berrigan brothers, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr. Anti-war, anti-racism activists all. All clergy who sought that connection between the immediate and the transcendent. I’ll become a rabbi.

This idea, that the rabbinate was the proper vehicle for secular-humanist crusading, is a succinct epigraph to liberal Judaism’s failed adventure in America. Silverman’s draw to spiritual leadership wasn’t about spirituality at all, really. It was about social justice. It was about politics.

Family Politics

Another of Silverman’s social-justice views manifested itself in her personal life, with the adoption of two young boys from Ethiopia. To her credit, Silverman recognized how having a black son lent her legitimacy as a white woman in her progressive world. While searching for a local Starbucks soon after her son’s arrival, Silverman discussed her embarrassment at being a caricature of herself, a suburban middle-class white woman driving a minivan. Because of her son, she was now “something new, deep and complex.” And her son? “So pure, this boy, and I had made him into a prop. I was using him to ‘pass’ in my own distorted way.”

Progressives aim to build a post-racial society, yet are incapable of evaluating individuals past the color of their skin, going so far as to tick boxes when piecing together a family.

Part of Silverman’s marketing strategy for the new book is to promote adoption, especially internationally, which has seen a marked decrease over the last decade. Costs are astronomical, as are the challenges. Of her decision to adopt from Ethiopia, Silverman and her husband partially wanted to form a connection with a country with a deep Jewish history, but her potential son’s skin pigmentation also played a role. She writes, “Creating a family of mixed skin colors is a result of my earliest imaginings about the world and about my someday family.” Progressives aim to build a post-racial society, yet are incapable of evaluating individuals past the color of their skin, going so far as to tick boxes when piecing together a family.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Silverman’s perspective on adopting unwanted children, however, are the several offhand remarks she makes regarding abortion. The first mention of abortion was in regard to her sister, the most famous of her siblings, Sarah. Upon first discovering they were pregnant, the Silverman parents apparently seriously entertained the possibility of aborting the pregnancy.

Admirable Intentions, Questionable Logic

Despite the tragic loss of Susan’s brother in infancy to an accident, Susan doesn’t ascribe any emotions to the possibility she could have lost another sibling to abortion, nor does she entertain thoughts of what life would have been like had their mother exercised this choice. Susan references abortion later in the book regarding her third biological child; they almost chose to “terminate” the pregnancy when a possible birth defect was discovered.

Susan doesn’t consider what life would have been like had her daughter not been born. This is a common coping strategy.

Again, Susan doesn’t seem particularly thankful she didn’t make this choice, or consider what life would have been like had her daughter not been born. This is a common coping strategy for pro-choice individuals, a refusal to acknowledge that the world has lost a unique human being for the sake of convenience.

Silverman’s book was largely written for the benefit of her peers, liberal women in the upper-middle-class community, many of whom are fans of her sister. Its stated goal is to popularize international adoption, of babies and older children (Susan adopted one of each), among Americans. The intention is an admirable one, though it’s remarkable to read an account of a mother and sister made famous by these relationships who does not for a moment consider the possibility of these individuals never existing, or what it says about one’s values system when they are merely brought into a family to fit a requirement based solely on the color of their skin.

Bethany Mandel is a stay-at-home mother of three children under four and a writer on politics and culture. She is a senior contributor to The Federalist, a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward, and a contributor at Acculturated. She lives with her husband, Seth, in New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @BethanyShondark.

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