The big news today of course is that Jack Abramoff has signed a deal to cooperate with the government’s prosecution of his Congressional partners in greed. But I’d like to cover an aspect of Abramoff that few in the media seem interested in: Jack’s Orthodox Jewish youth and his early campus Young Republican fanaticism. There are plenty of reasons to hate what Jack Abramoff did to himself and our political system. But what also interests me is what drove him to become the adult he did.
Barry Yeoman writes a terrific snapshot of Abramoff’s youth in the Mother Jones September/October issue. What’s interesting about this article is that Yeoman’s appears to have interviewed Abramoff directly. The stories are too personal to have come from any other source. Yet he does not say this within the article and provides no source:
IN THE HEAT OF A LOS ANGELES summer afternoon, the 13-year-old set off from home and began walking the five miles to synagogue. He was hungry and thirsty. It was the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av, when observers are not allowed to consume food or water for 24 hours. Grasping for his own interpretation of the law, the boy had convinced himself that he wasn’t supposed to ride in a car or even wear shoes.
He walked along the fence of the Los Angeles Country Club, an institution that historically excluded Jews. The pavement was hot and full of small stones, and his stocking feet began to blister. But when a member of the synagogue offered him a ride, he refused. To young Jack Abramoff, the religion of his ancestors was perilously close to fading away in his generation. He wasn’t going to fail it.
What is interesting about this story if true is that Abramoff here distorts Judaism in order to glorify the maximalism of his own standard of observance. Only on Shabbat and major holidays can you not drive a car. On Tisha B’Av you may drive one. On Tisha B’Av you may not wear leather. But you certainly may wear sneakers (not made with leather). He somehow feels that on this fast day if he punishes himself more than other Jews that he will earn extra points. Here we see the “driven to excess” aspect of his youthful personality coming to the fore. One thing Abramoff seems to have missed is that Judaism frowns on those who take its halachic standards to excess. You merely have to be a good Jew. You don’t have to be the best Jew. In fact, there is no best Jew.
Abramoff came of age in Beverly Hills, the son of an executive who worked for Arnold Palmer, the famously conservative golfer. The language of his childhood home was about patriotism and honoring elders, and he often heard stories about the plight of Soviet Jews. But his parents were not particularly observant. As he tells it, his religious epiphany came at 12 years old when, after watching Fiddler on the Roof, he yearned for the Orthodoxy of his great-grandparents’ generation. “It was to me very strange that they’re Jews and we’re Jews, and we have totally different lives and belief systems,” he says. “I felt a twinge of sadness that that culture had died out in our family.” And with that, he decided, “I’ll be the person to resurrect it.”
Abramoff bought books on Jewish law and taught himself Hebrew. Every Saturday, he’d wake before his siblings and walk to temple. His parents were surprised, but, he says, “I believed in God. I believed he did decide the Jewish people would do certain things. I wanted to keep up my end of the contract.”
It wasn’t until he entered Brandeis University that Abramoff found a like-minded community. He befriended rabbis and ate his meals at a kosher kitchen. He debated politics in the dorms, arguing that the Bible ordained a conservative ideology. And he met, for the first time, members of left-wing groups like the Spartacus Youth League, which held rallies attacking U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and calling for nuclear disarmament. “I was outraged that seemingly normal American students could so hate the country I love,” he says. Abramoff organized counter demonstrations, where students sang “God Bless America.”
Along those same lines, Bruce Ehrlich was also a member of the Brandeis class of 1981. He was involved in the movement against U.S. intervention in El Salvador. Bruce wrote this interesting reminiscence in a comment at this blog:
I also graduated from Brandeis, class of 1981. It was an interesting time politically in the US as well as at Brandeis. Reagan had just been elected. Coincidentally (or not) that same year Brandeis hired a visiting professor of politics who I studied with, who had come directly from the American Enterprise Institute — which might today seem like a moderate Republican think tank but back then was a vanguard of the right
My most vivid memory involving Jack Abramoff and the newly-formed Brandeis Young Republicans occurred during a rally we held to oppose US intervention in El Salvador. Suddenly we were surround on all sides by his band of Young Repubs, who were waving American flags and singing God Bless America in an attempt to drown out our speakers. I kid you not. Right-wing flag wavers had finally arrived at Brandeis. It was certainly the beginning of a new era in politics.
Bruce also infers a possible Brandeis connection between Jack Abramoff and the family of Bob Ney, one of the Congress members most deeply implicated in the current scandal:
Representative Bob Ney the brother of Vic Ney, also class of ‘81. I’ve always assumed there was a connections there since I roughly place Vic and Jack in the same social circles at Brandeis.