August 17, 2019

God, Hillary, and Geraldine

It was dark and amazingly quiet in the back of the limousine where I sat facing Geraldine Ferraro at the height of the presidential election campaign in 1984. I was covering the women’s vote for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and we had stepped out of the din for a hard-won interview where I would ask her about teens killing one another in the street gang violence that the Herald had begun to cover in L.A. I had only as much time as the motorcade would take to get from the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco to her next venue, a mile or two away.

An accomplished former prosecutor from New York, Congresswoman Ferraro had been picked by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale as his vice presidential running mate to create some buzz, and to counter charges that Democrats were soft on crime. But she had not heard about the Bloods and the Crips — whose names had only just been discovered and published by the Herald for the first time — and my assignment was to ask her how she would tackle this new problem as vice president. 

As the limo glided across the steep city streets, Ferraro asked me to repeat my question, then stopped and asked me to clarify. Teenagers were killing each other in organized street gangs in Los Angeles? Her face, all joy and intensity on the campaign trail, looked tired, and her eyes welled up. She looked away for a minute, appearing older than she had on TV or from the media section at her rallies. 

The subject was a tough one, but traveling around on the Ferraro plane had been pretty exciting, even if it was for only a few days while she campaigned in California. I was young, and I knew it was historic. Although I had never personally felt held back by my gender, we’d never seen a female run for vice president before, and she was certainly inspiring many women my age and younger to study law, go into politics and dream big.  

I didn’t think about her candidacy from a religious perspective — why would I? At the time, I was a Reform Jew and religion seemed to have nothing to do with it; the big question for everyone was whether she’d help Mondale win. But in the intervening years, religion has given me much to consider about gender, so Hillary Clinton’s nomination for president strikes me differently. Watching Clinton at the convention last week, her face radiant and grandmotherly at the same time, affirmed much that I’ve come to understand as I’ve studied Judaism — even though the Modern Orthodox world, where I live now, struggles mightily with gender roles and hasn’t yet even fully accepted female clergy.  

Early on in my study toward a more observant life, I learned something about God’s role in creation. Jewish thought assigns deliberate meaning to everything in the created world, so differences between men and women are divinely designed and part of the holiness of humanity. This is the basis of different gender roles in Jewish ritual, but it also reflects something we often see but struggle to describe — that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or however else you name it.

If each gender has a different contribution to make, then excluding an entire gender from any arena is to our detriment. This is an important argument for women’s spiritual leadership, by whatever name, in Orthodox Judaism (and by the way, for men’s participation in parenting). At my synagogue, B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson, Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn occupies a different role from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, even though the two have mostly the same responsibilities.  Different people approach her with different kinds of questions, and they hear from her different kinds of responses. It’s partly because of who she is, and partly geographical — she sits on the women’s side of the sanctuary, so she’s easy to find.  The same principle applies to all female leaders — they’re geographically closer to other women, so they’re more attuned to women’s concerns. They’ve heard and sometimes lived those concerns, and perceive what men sometimes can’t.

In addition, there’s the question of individuality. For a religious person, seeking individual purpose is a constant and critical task and only partly a matter of preference; many of us believe it has been divinely foreordained by the Source of whatever gifts we have, which are as unique as our fingerprints. Hillary Clinton is certainly not the first woman greatly gifted in intelligence, problem solving, leadership, tenacity and a desire to do deeds of chesed (kindness). She is also not the first shameless and indefatigable policy nerd. But she may be the first with those qualities who is able to lead the United States, and to manage, understand and oversee the complex machinery of its 21st-century democratic government. 

From a religious perspective, the greatness of this moment is not that a woman has “achieved” something, it’s that our time and place is the first to be able to fully avail itself in this way of a woman’s gifts.  When we imagine the girls who see Clinton’s accomplishments and are inspired to follow in her footsteps, what we’re imagining is that as we work to perfect the world, we’ll have the benefit of their talents. 

These days, the United States also has the possibility of drawing upon leaders of African, Asian, indigenous and Middle Eastern descent, as well as European; disabled as well as able-bodied; gay and straight, tall and short, fat and thin, and — as we learned from Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Ronald Reagan — young and old. No less than a cancer center or a basketball team, national leadership needs the very best people to get things done.

So there was Hillary Clinton, dressed in white and wearing a necklace bearing a tiny heart, talking about how details of law are what make things change and how we’re stronger together. Here she was, insisting that an “I” cannot reflect the consent of the governed as well as a “we.” Here were her surrogates — the woman injured on 9/11 whom she convinced to go through with her marriage; the fireman who described how she appeared, without cameras, and took first responders’ case for follow-up medical care to the White House; speakers who said she was always “about” others and about results. No one said it, but these are all feminine strengths, or perhaps fruits of female experience — and certainly fruits of Clinton’s. Imagine if by reason of gender, she had not been permitted to employ them. How much poorer would we be?

I thought about that, and I thought about Geraldine Ferraro.

“You are telling me that teenagers in gangs are killing each other in Los Angeles?” 

Back in the limousine, the candidate told me she’d start with tough enforcement of existing laws, and she ticked off a few specific suggestions. I don’t remember them anymore. But I vividly remember the look on her face. It was a look of pain — perhaps of a mother personally pained, even shaken, at the notion of other mothers’ sons dying in the streets, in their own neighborhoods, at one another’s hands.  

Thirty-two years later, the tragedy Ferraro confronted for the first time that day persists, and not for lack of effort to combat it. Maybe some of the problems facing our world will bend to someone with the other spiritual skill set — someone from the other column, as it were. Or maybe just the particular skill set and extraordinary life experience — which includes, by the way, an up-close view of Yasser Arafat’s torpedoing a Mideast peace deal at the end of her husband’s second term — of this particular person, who happens to be from the female side of creation.

But however it turns out — whoever wins, and whether he or she succeeds or fails — the world is complicated and difficult, and the more talent we have to draw from in selecting our leaders, the more chances we have to get it right.

Last week, it seems to me, our chances doubled.

Joelle Keene teaches music and journalism at Shalhevet High School. She lives with her family in Pico-Robertson.