Friday, September 08, 2006

Senator Macaca-->Member of the Tribe

When we last left the Virginia's junior Senator George Allen, he had pumped up a rally by calling S.R. Sidarth Macaca and welcomed him to America though Sidarth was born and raised in Virginia. A media frenzy broke out, as it should anytime a leading politician attacks people with racist slurs.

The Forward, a national Jewish weekly, tracing its history to lefty yiddish speaking immigrants, published a fascinating angle. Allen claimed he had made up a word based around Sidarth's hairstyle and pointed out that Macaca sounded like mohawk. Several media outlets determined that macaca was in common usage as a racial slur by whites, especially french speaking whites, in Africa and was connected to the colonial legacy. It turns out that Allen's mom is French Tunisian. What the Forward's article showed, that other media outlets didn't figure out, was that Allen's mom is likely Jewish, as she is a member of the storied Sephardic Lumbroso clan.

The Forward article said that:

Allen’s mother, Henriette (Etty), whose maiden name was Lumbroso, is indeed Francophone and Tunisian born, a heritage that forms a romantic theme in “Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter” the memoir of Allen family life written by Allen’s sister Jennifer. What’s more, it is likely that she’s Jewish by birth, although no acknowledgment of that heritage appears in the memoir. Allen’s campaign spokesman, Bill Bozin, did not return several detailed messages, left over two days, that asked what the senator and his family know about his mother’s heritage...Though Etty Allen seems not to have dwelled on it during her years in the spotlight as a coach’s wife, she comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family. Her father, who was the main importer of wines and liquors in Tunis — including the Cinzano brand — was known in France, where he lived after World War II, as part of the family, according to French Jewish sources. If both of Etty’s parents were born Jewish — which, given her age and background, is likely — Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.

So what does this all mean? Is Allen a jew?
The answer of course depends on who one asks.

The normative orthodox standard for status as a jew is whether one's mother had that status at the time of that person's birth. If the mother was not halachically (according to jewish law) Jewish than a conversion is necessary to be considered jewish under the traditional system of jewish law.

According to the Reconstructionist movement to be Jewish a person must 1) have at least one Jewish (biological?) parent, and 2) be raised in a jewish manner with public recognition thereof (was there a bar/t mitzvah? a naming ceremony? etc).
I thought it would make sense to setup a matrix comparing Recon and Ortho standards. In some ways the Recon standard is more stringent and in some ways the Ortho standard is more stringent. George Allen, for instance, would not be considered a Jew by the Recon approach but would be considered Jewish by the Ortho standard. He considers himself an evangelical Christian for what it's worth. Here is the table:

Jewish According to Ortho Standard

Not Jewish According to Ortho Standard

Jewish Accordining to Recon Standard


Several Rabbis in Reform and Recon Movement with Jewish fathers and non-jewish mothers

Not Jewish According to Recon Standard

George Allen

Mel Gibson (crosses fingers)

I don't consider Allen a Jew, and I think the Recon standard (which i think is now also the reform standard) makes a lot more sense. But, hey, that's no surprise.


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