When you read “Dreams from My Father,” the first thing to strike you is the freedom with which Obama’s family shaped its identity. Obama’s story is one of self-discovery. No Jew discovers himself, he’s told what he is from birth and discovers his place within his roots. The Dunhams, uprooted by the Great Depression, move from state to state in an era when relocating was torture. Ann Dunham, raised without roots, looks for roots in foreign husbands. Barack Sr. treats Ann like an imperial conquest in reverse; when better opportunities arise in Kenya, he abandons his American family without a second thought. The bi-racial, quadri-cultural Obama comes to the post-racial semi-oasis of Hawaii. Even if he wasn’t happy, he’s free to explore all his facets and grow into a great man. Until Obama’s a teenager, his family was barely lower-middle-class, yet he felt no need to ‘make it’ to a higher class. All this points to one thing: Barack Obama is the most goyish man in America.
Obama may be 55, but his grandparents are younger than mine. He came to us in 2008 like a time traveller from a future America when races and cultures synthesize. In 2017, Jews still ask themselves: where is the place for Jews in Obama’s America? The Obama of memoirs argues for a relativist country where cultural identities are not defined by White America, rather, everyone’s identity is accepted for what it is without society imposing any cultural standard from above.
But the idea that there’s no system to define your identity sounds ludicrous to Jews. Wherever the country, the “system” in Judaism never disappears, and our lives are binaurally defined by acceptance or rejection of our religion. Reject Judaism, and we spend our lives stopping our heads from screaming in guilt for its abandonment. Judaism doesn’t proselytize, but take universal morality from Judaism and it ceases to exist. Judaism without systemic standards is impossible, and not only mutually exclusive with the multicultural America of Obama’s dreams, but a reproach to it. Nevertheless, Obama’s writings and Obama’s policies seem created by different people.
The only Jew appearing in his memoir is his boss as a community organizer. Obama describes him as “smart… too sure of himself… no particular attachments… cynical… calculating… tactless… and ‘right.’” Given everything since, it’s difficult to imagine that this couldn’t describe his relationship with Jews in general — what must his private relationships with Axelrod, Plouffe, Summers or Rahm be like? Candidate Obama was a progressive clinging to misbegotten ideals, President Obama was a liberal who embraced realism. Even now, it’s not difficult to imagine something begrudging about his admiration of Jews, but it’s still admiration. His entire background is so unconnected to the Judaism that you have to wonder — is Jewish hostility to Obama from Israel policy, from racism, or bewilderment that a president can be so different from us yet so similar?
Jewish and black histories are similar as only two completely different experiences are: the difference between a culture of no hope, and a culture of hopes dashed. African-American history’s a culture kept alive in a single place for the purpose of being oppressed by it. Jewish history is a culture doomed to thrive everywhere, and again be mass murdered the moment before our security becomes permanent. Admiration between Jews and blacks will always have grudges within it — the grudge of two peoples thinking they suffered worst. Postcolonial ideas about creating identities without imposed systems sound like gibberish in Jewish brains. Jews have to meet the standards of Jewish identity before they can even worry about fitting into their countries of origin. But Obama, as he does to so many worldviews, synthesizes black with Jewish. His heart is goyish, but his brain bespeaks a yiddisher kop. At every point, when time to decide between ideals and results, he compromised ideals to bring them closer to reality.
Candidate Obama was as thoroughly a goy as President Obama’s a Jew. Jews can say that President Obama stabbed us in the back all they want, but when President Obama lifted the U.S.’s Veto to the U.N. Settlement condemnation, he long since gave Israel more money than any president in history. The Great Recession shrank America’s economy 4.6 percent, but Israel’s shrank 0.2 percent. Jews think Obama negotiated a bad deal to get rid of Iranian nuclear capability, but if the deal is bad, then Obama gave Israel all the tools they need to fight Iran — including the bunker busters and the Iron Dome that even George W. Bush kept from Israel. He never wavered in his support of an Israel that thrives. He’s more “Jewish” than most critics of his Israel policies, and much of what he knows about getting results is from Jews.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.