As much as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may wish to present himself as an ethnically neutral pragmatist, his Jewishness inevitably plays a role in people’s opinion of him
The rococo St. George Theater on Staten Island was full of white men in dark suits, so when another man entered, few heads turned. The man, short and somber-faced, stood in the aisle with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Anyone glancing in his direction would have recognized him as the 10th-richest person in the United States, the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. He did not applaud when an elementary-school choir in waist-length neckerchiefs sang the hit song “Kids” by the psychedelic pop duo MGMT. “Control yourself,” the children sang. “Take only what you need from it.”
Bloomberg dispensed wooden handshakes and rubber smiles as he shuffled to the stage, where an orange banner boasted “Progress at Work.” This was in January, at Bloomberg’s 10th State of the City address, and his public speaking skills were as remedial as ever. He paid slavish attention to the two teleprompters, switching screens at each punctuation mark. “Let me be clear,” he said, whipping his eyes from left to right, “we will not raise taxes to balance the budget”—right to left—“we will choose a third approach”—left to right—“a smarter approach.” Every time Bloomberg neared a potential applause break his words took on more speed and volume but no emotional valence, so that he seemed to be shouting his audience down, preventing them from clapping.
Voters do not want to have a beer with Bloomberg. He is no Bill Clinton, who charmed his way to prominence despite humble roots, and he is no George W. Bush, who managed to seem approachable despite a privileged upbringing. Raised a Conservative Jew in Medford, Mass., Bloomberg is a middle-class boy who likes getting things done. The mayor’s detractors say he has succeeded in electoral politics only because his personal fortune allows him to buy up huge amounts of campaign advertising and because Americans, despite a stubborn streak and a growing antipathy to government, tend to do what television tells them to do. His boosters say that with no debts to unions and no rainbow coalition, he has nothing to run on but his record. He can’t even count on fealty from his younger daughter, Georgina, who recently released an autobiographical novel that may prove embarrassing to the administration. (Asked about her father by the New York Times, Georgina responded with nervous laughter before hopping a plane to Bermuda.)
When reporters ask him if he’ll ever run for president, Bloomberg usually quips that a short, divorced Jewish billionaire could never win. “Part of that joke is that being Jewish is actually not a barrier to running for president, not anymore,” says William Adler, who teaches political science at Yeshiva University. The other part of the joke is that this is more or less the only time Bloomberg plays up his ancestry. “He doesn’t talk Jewish, he doesn’t act Jewish,” says one prominent Jewish (and Jewish-acting) New York Democrat. “I don’t hear anything out of him, in pacing, in tone, in Yiddishisms—it’s even less than the average gentile New Yorker.”
Like most big American cities, New York has a history of sectarian politics. Tammany Hall was an Irish organization. Fiorello LaGuardia, the most revered mayor in the city’s collective memory, succeeded partly because he was a powerful ethnic hybrid—half Italian and half Jewish, fluent in both Italian and Yiddish. “Bloomberg is not interested in ethnic power plays, pitting blacks against Italians—he’s not interested in playing that game,” said Adler. “Then again, he plays a different game, which is called buying your vote. Maybe that’s one of those ‘only in New York’ things. Maybe a rich Jew buying power in Denver or Atlanta wouldn’t play so well.”
In a way, it’s remarkable that anti-Semitic tropes are not more widespread among Bloomberg’s detractors. Among other things, he comes about as close as one person can to controlling the media and finance, with his Bloomberg news service and omnipresent Bloomberg terminals used by Wall Street traders. It may be a testament to his political skill, or to the permissiveness of the current cultural moment, that Bloomberg has still been able to render his Jewishness moot. Whereas Ed Koch used his conspicuous Jewishness as a political tool, Bloomberg is Jewish by blood but not necessarily by temperament. Even Koch notices the difference. “He has his own style,” Koch told me of Bloomberg. “I get emotional. His style is much cooler.”
Bloomberg is a technocrat first and an assimilated Jew second. “Bloomberg has created a space where a Jewish politician no longer has to choose between two traditional molds, the left-wing social justice model or the neocon model,” said the Columbia University political scientist David Epstein. “Any politician—but especially a Jewish politician—can now campaign saying ‘I’ll be an effective Bloomberg-style manager,’ and everyone will intuit what that means.” A few weeks after we spoke, a Jew was elected mayor in Chicago, giving credence to Epstein’s words. Rahm Emanuel is less quiet and less rich than Bloomberg, but he won by playing down his partisan past and running as a pragmatist.
Up the block from Epstein’s Columbia office, at a deli on the corner of West 121st Street and Broadway, I asked the owner his opinion of the mayor. Amni Samhoury was born in Jordan but has lived in Bensonhurst for the last 40 years. “So far he’s a good mayor,” Samhoury said from behind the counter. “The problem is he’s making no place for poor people in the city, no place for middle-wage people.”
I asked Samhoury if he’d voted for Bloomberg. “Of course,” he said. Explaining that I was writing for a Jewish magazine, I asked if his opinion had been swayed one way or the other by Bloomberg’s Jewishness. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Samhoury told me in a bright, helpful tone. “The Jews control the economy. It’s been like this for decades. Not only the United States—they have so many countries under their control.”
“And you voted for a Jew anyway?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” Samhoury said. “He knows business, he knows politics. He performs the job well.”
Samhoury then overcharged me for my soda and gum, but I kept quiet.
Both of my grandmothers live in Manhattan—Clare on the Upper West Side and Dorothy near Sutton Place, not far from the apartment where Bloomberg lived before his move to East 79th Street. Grandma Clare aligns, at least superficially, with the kvelling, brisket-cooking, calling-to-make-sure-you’re-warm-enough stereotype of a Jewish grandmother. Grandma Dorothy is also genetically Jewish, but quietly so. To put it crudely, Clare is a brash, Koch-style Jew, while Dorothy is an assimilated Jew of the Bloomberg variety.
I went to visit Clare in the cafeteria of her senior home on West End Avenue. “Maria, this is my baby boy,” she told a woman wearing a hairnet and scooping potato salad onto my tray. “He’s come to put me in an article and make me famous!” I carried her tray to the table, where we sat in plastic rolling chairs and ate our toast. I asked her what she thought about Bloomberg. “I don’t like what he’s doing to the unions,” she bellowed. “And housing! Where are middle-class people supposed to live? Long Island?” Clare grew up speaking Yiddish in Brooklyn. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a member of the Workmen’s Circle, a labor-rights organization founded by socialist Jews in 1900. When David Epstein talked of a “left-wing social justice” tradition in Jewish politics, he was talking about my grandma Clare. Bloomberg got no points with her for being nominally Jewish—it didn’t count against him, certainly, but it did not excuse his centrism.
The next week, the doorman at Dorothy’s building showed me upstairs. Inside, Dorothy apologized for the mess in her foyer: She’d been redecorating. She showed off a new batch of Zimbabwean sculptures she’d placed on pedestals in the living room. Three books were stacked on her mid-century coffee table under a crystal paperweight: Glitter and Doom: German Portraits From the 1920s, The Jews of Germany, and The Very Rich: A History of Wealth.
Dorothy’s father was an Orthodox immigrant who owned a laundromat in the Bronx. Dorothy worked her way through night school to become one of the first women to join the NYU Law Review. She made her own money and invested it wisely and still works part-time as an arbiter at the New York Stock Exchange. She thinks in contemporary American society hard work and intelligence are rewarded.
We walked down East 58th Street to a French bistro in a converted townhouse. Grandma Dorothy ordered salmon, well done; I had the striped bass in lobster sauce and Diet Coke in a cocktail glass. “I admire his integrity, the way he’s willing to stand up to the unions,” Dorothy said about Bloomberg. “He grew up middle class, but he happened to be smart enough to develop an amazing company, and now he’s brought his skills to politics. I think he’s a wonderful manager, and his money allows him to maintain his independence. I also like that he calls his mother on the phone every day.” (Bloomberg’s mother, Charlotte, a New Jersey native and the daughter of a Russian immigrant, died at 102 on Sunday.)
“Does your support of him have to do with the fact that he’s Jewish?” I asked.
“I like that he’s Jewish,” she said, “but it has nothing to do with my opinion of him. Ed Koch was Jewish, and I hated him. He was an egomaniac.”
“You don’t buy the rap that Bloomberg is out of touch with the common man?” I asked her.
“Of course not,” she said. “He takes the subway to work.”
Andrew Marantz is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in New York, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications.
A Jewish democratic state by definition must have a Jewish majority. Political scientist Rebecca Steinfeld studies how Israel has from its earliest days sought to establish and maintain that majority.