The Obama dialogues

A rabbi sees the story of his old neighborhood in Michelle's narrative.

obama wins 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama wins 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Two men take a break from their Torah study to discuss the election in a sidewalk café on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. (A reconstruction.) The Director: Do you see a Jewish angle, besides the perennial Israel question? The Rabbi: I was carried away by Michelle Obama's speech at the convention, although I had previously been put off by her fierceness. The speech, with the accompanying pictures of her Chicago South Side home, explained my visceral reaction. I am a South Sider, and she grew up not far from my 83rd and Oglesby Ave. childhood address - a large white house on a prominent corner. When my parents moved in the early 1950s, parts of the South Side were "restricted" [against Jews]. Young successful World War II veterans and their baby boomer kids swept that away. The South Side was Jewish and Catholic, and when Jack Kennedy took the presidency, we knew that a Jewish president was not far behind. Religion as an issue died. In those days the compelling issue was race, and soon after gender. My family were highly involved in the first: Mom taught in the black high schools; dad, a dentist, was involved in community affairs; my brothers were political; I worked at Headstart and the (old) Mayor Daley's Teen Race Task Force. We saw a bridge between the Jewish story and the black. The Director: That sounds like a Jewish fantasy that ends with everyone "coming together." The Rabbi: Yeah, not many bought it. The Jews fled the vibrant South Shore Jewish community for the far North Shore. Those of us who remained, believing in integration and trying to help the poor and old Jews, who are always the last to leave, learned a lot - especially that blacks were going to decide their own destiny. We Jews would have little to do with the outcome. The fierceness of Michelle reflected the faces we saw daily: those who followed the path of resentment and despair and crime, unwed young parents. All those ills shot up dramatically. But there was also a fierce determination to succeed. We saw the rise of black athletes, politicians - some really good, a far cry from Jesse Jackson - academics and professionals. Michelle's fierceness is one aspect of that determination. Her own story of success as a black woman is an American story, and she credits Federally-funded educational programs for speeding her along. She is from the heartland a heck of a lot more than Cindy McCain, born to privilege. Jewishly, it looks like the entering into the Promised Land of a generation after release from slavery and wandering in the desert. Barack, coming from a different history, I don't get so well. The Director: Barack is the "Jewish story" - a story straight out of the Exodus story we spent a few years studying. Obama is a midrash on Moses. It is not a small thing that our first African American president is really African, and has no slave blood. In this way he's like Moses, related to the Hebrews but without a direct experience of slavery. You look at Obama and you see why Moses had to come from the palace. He had to have an experience of freedom and sympathy for the slaves, without ever once having been whipped. That he was raised by his mother and grandmother may also have a resonance with the way Shifra and Puah protected the baby. Obama knows racism, of course, but coming from Hawaii and a stop in Indonesia, his experiences of direct hatred have been limited. And the Hawaiian part of his childhood can't be ignored. He went to the best private school in Honolulu, where he already knew he wanted to be president, something Hillary mocked, but we need a man with an engorged sense of destiny; we need a prince. The Rabbi: That explains his seriousness and serenity, but also his empathic passion. As a couple, the Obamas are striking. Let's figure out that with all the Jews who worked on his campaign - along with his own best instincts - how this will benefit Israel. But this could make a great picture. (Background.) Guy from another table leans over: If you're making a deal, I'm in! Daniel Landes is rosh yeshiva of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Michael Tolkin is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and director.