At Lubavitch retreat, Virginia senator reveals secret Jewish heritage
Washington — In his 2006 reelection campaign, Virginia Senator George Allen’s Jewish roots were among the issues that brought him down. Not the fact that his mother was raised as a Jew, but rather his attempts to hide this fact from Virginia voters.
Now, as Allen seeks to win back his Senate seat in 2012, the Republican politician is feeling the need to set the record straight on what he knew and what he did not know about his Jewish ancestry.
And what better place to explain this complex issue, than the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Learning Institute’s National Jewish Retreat in Reston, Virginia?
Allen was the keynote speaker at the August 19 event and was greeted, according to The Washington Post, as a long lost member of the Jewish community. “We definitely view him wholeheartedly as a fellow Jew,” Rabbi Efraim Mintz, who heads Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, told The Post.
Allen, a Republican who served as governor of Virginia and who had represented the state in both chambers of Congress, lost the 2006 elections to Democrat Jim Webb by a tiny margin. Analysts believe that the source of his downfall can be traced back to the moment in the campaign in which he was caught on tape calling a young Indian-American volunteer from the Webb campaign “macaca” which is considered to be a racial epithet in French-African dialects.
Examining the possible ways such a slur made its way to Allen’s vocabulary, The Forward found [see below] that Allen’s mother, Henriette “Etty” Allen, had Jewish roots, going back to her father’s Sepharadi Portuguese family. When asked about it in a debate with Webb, Allen, visibly angry, insisted he is Christian and protested the interviewer’s “making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs.”
Allen later explained that he did not know at the time his mother’s father was Jewish.
At the Chabad event, Allen detailed for the first time his Jewish ties, making clear that during that debate, he had already known that his mother was raised Jewish.
[A transcript of Allen’s speech can be found here: http://www.georgeallen.com/2010/8/george-allen-addresses-the-jewish-learning-institute-s-national-jewish-retreat]
Allen said he learned about it several months earlier. During breakfast at his mother’s house, he asked her if there was any truth to the rumors that the family had Jewish roots. His mother, Allen told the room filled with 600 Chabad members, repeatedly ducked the question. But Allen kept on asking.
“After this last of my innocent, cross-examination questions in between spoons of cereal, my mother very seriously told me that she would tell me ‘something’ but only if I swore not to tell anyone,” the former Senator said. She then asked him to swear on “Popop’s head”, Popop being the nickname of his grandfather, and told him that her father was Jewish.
Allen’s mother explained she had kept her Jewish ancestry a secret, fearing it would harm her husband’s career as a professional football coach and that her son would be subjected to anti-Semitic jokes. She then warned Allen never to reveal the secret.
And then came the debate where he was asked directly about it.
“I had been put in a dilemma to defend my mother’s wishes and my promise to her as well as wanting to tell people this story,” he said. Later, after convincing his mother, he began to speak freely about his Jewish background.
The Chabad audience warmly applauded Allen’s belated embrace of his Jewish heritage. Allen was honored with the opportunity to blow a shofar, which, according to Chabad experts in the room, was quite impressive for a first-timer. Still, it is unclear what significance this event will have for Allen’s political career. Virginia’s Jewish community is small and is concentrated in the Democratic northern part of the state.
But for Allen, taking a couple of hours to discuss his Jewish heritage could prove beneficial down the road, as he attempts to close the “macaca” chapter and come to terms with his background. His Chabad speech may serve as reference whenever issues regarding racial and religious insensitivity will be raised.
Or as he described that morning around his mother’s kitchen table: “From that day forward, the core principle of freedom of conscience, beliefs and religion was no longer a matter of enlightened philosophy to me; it became deeply personal in my heart-wrenching realization of how fear and persecution so tormented my loving, loyal mother’s life.”
The above article can be found here: http://www.forward.com/articles/130471/
‘Senator Allen confirms mother’s Jewish roots’ The Jewish Daily Forward; September 19, 2006
Senator George Allen has released a statement confirming his mother’s Jewish lineage, a day after refusing to answer a question on the topic during a debate.
“I was raised as a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian. And I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line’s Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed,” Allen said in the statement.
The Forward published a story last month [see below] detailing Allen’s Jewish heritage. He did not return calls seeking comment for that article, and soon after insisted that his mother was “raised a Christian” and made no mention of any of her Jewish ancestors.
The issue gained national attention after a debate Monday, during which Allen fumed at a reporter who asked him about the subject.
After Allen mentioned that his father “was incarcerated by the Nazis in World War II,” one of the debate questioners, WUSA-TV’s Peggy Fox, asked whether it was true that his grandparents had been Jewish.
“To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don’t think is relevant,” Allen responded angrily. “Why is that relevant — my religion, Jim’s religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?” He then urged Fox to refrain from “making aspersions.”
In his statement today, Allen criticized Fox for what he described as her efforts to impugn “the attitudes of my mother.” He also said that “the notion peddled by the Webb campaign that I am somehow embarrassed by my heritage is equally offensive, and also absurd.”
Allen said that although for years he has publicly mentioned that his maternal grandfather was incarcerated by the Nazis, he never knew if his grandfather was persecuted because of “his nationality, his religious faith, his role as a community leader, or his part in the anti-Nazi resistance.”
“Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it’s a fact,” Allen said. “We in the Allen household were simply taught that what matters is a person’s character, integrity, effort, and performance — not race, gender, ethnicity or religion. And so whenever we would ask my mother through the years about our family background on her side, the answer always was, ‘Who cares about that?’
He ended the note saying that his mother “deserves respect and she also deserves privacy, especially where painful memories are concerned. I sincerely hope that simple decency will be respected.”
The above article can be found here: http://www.forward.com/articles/4659/
‘Alleged slur casts spotlight on senator’s (Jewish?) roots’
The Jewish Daily Forward; August 25, 2006
When Senator George Allen of Virginia used a racial slur for dark-skinned North Africans, “macaca,” during a recent encounter with a young Indian American cameraman from his opponent’s campaign, many wondered where he had learned the word.
Macaca means “monkey,” but Allen’s campaign insisted that the word was made up, an inside joke on the young man’s hairstyle. But some commentators noted that Allen’s mother is “French Tunisian,” speculating that Allen, who speaks French, had picked up the epithet from her. (Allen’s late father was famed Washington Redskins football coach George Allen.)
Allen’s mother, Henriette (Etty), whose maiden name was Lumbroso, is indeed Francophone and Tunisian born, a heritage that forms a romantic theme in “Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter” the memoir of Allen family life written by Allen’s sister Jennifer. What’s more, it is likely that she’s Jewish by birth, although no acknowledgment of that heritage appears in the memoir.
Allen’s campaign spokesman, Bill Bozin, did not return several detailed messages, left over two days, that asked what the senator and his family know about his mother’s heritage.
Depending on what additional information comes out on the matter, the controversy could end up resurrecting a dominant theme of the Democratic primaries four years ago, when it turned out that no fewer than four presidential hopefuls had significant Jewish ties: Senator Joseph Lieberman was an Orthodox Jew; Senator John Kerry was descended from Jews and had a brother who converted to Judaism; former general Wesley Clark had a Jewish father; Howard Dean was married to a Jewish woman and raised Jewish children.
For now, some political analysts are predicting that the macaca flap could sink what until now had been viewed widely in Washington circles as Allen’s strong chance of emerging in 2008 as the conservative standard-bearer in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. And judging from recent polls, it is putting a crimp in what was supposed to be a handy re-election bid in Virginia.
The incident is not the first time that Allen has faced criticism for supposed racial insensitivity. The New Republic recently reported that when he was a high school student, the senator, a native Californian, wore a Confederate flag lapel pin; it further reported that even as an adult, Allen sometimes displayed the Confederate flag as part of a flag collection. In the 1980s, he stirred ire by opposing the establishment in Virginia of Martin Luther King Day. But Allen points to more recent efforts, such as a push to increase funds for Virginia’s historically black colleges, as evidence that he seeks to better race relations.
Allen’s own African heritage casts a different light on the matter. Though Etty Allen seems not to have dwelled on it during her years in the spotlight as a coach’s wife, she comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family. Her father, who was the main importer of wines and liquors in Tunis — including the Cinzano brand — was known in France, where he lived after World War II, as part of the family, according to French Jewish sources. If both of Etty’s parents were born Jewish — which, given her age and background, is likely — Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.
This might complicate life for Allen, a practicing Presbyterian who besides running for re-election this year in Virginia is often mentioned as a possible Republican 2008 contender. Political analyst John Mercurio of National Journal’s noted tip sheet, The Hotline, said that any complication “would depend largely on how this information was revealed.”
“If it was discovered that Allen knew this family history, but attempted to keep it under wraps for whatever reason, it could do great harm to any political campaign,” Mercurio wrote in an e-mail. “He’d face serious questions, in the wake of the Macaca incident and his history with the Confederate flag, of whether he’s both racially prejudiced and anti-semitic. Given the intensely pro-Israel sentiment that exists in this country today, that could be a huge political liability — but on the other hand, if this is something he discovers and promptly reveals about himself, and does so with a sense of pride in his family history, I don’t think he’d face much backlash at all.”
According to information compiled from several Sephardic genealogical Web sites, the Lumbroso family originated in Portugal but made its way to Livorno, or Leghorn, in Italy after the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. “Lumbroso” means “luminous” and is a translation of the Hebrew word “nehora.”
Allen is aware of at least the Italian connection, and trumpets it. On the campaign trail recently, according to the online journal Salon, Allen said: “I have my grandfather’s bloodlines. My grandfather is French-Italian. I have about one-sixteenth Spanish in me.”
Dr. Jeffrey Malka, an expert on Sephardic genealogy, told the Forward in an e-mail that in Portugal the Lumbrosos became conversos — unlike Spanish Jews, Portuguese Jews were not allowed to leave and were forcibly converted en masse — who escaped to Livorno, where they were able to return to Judaism. Malka called the Livorno community “fascinating” because, invited by the Medicis, they became wealthy and powerful traders, setting up branches in Tunis and ransoming Jews captured by Barbary pirates.
Among the most famous members of the family, Malka said, was Itzhak Lumbroso, an 18th-century rabbi and rabbinic judge who wrote a commentary on the Talmud, “Seed of Isaac,” that was the first book printed in Hebrew in Tunis.
If Allen wants to research his heritage, there are many resources available. The marriage contracts of many Lumbrosos, for example, can be found in historical compendia including “Registres Matrimoniaux de la Communaute Juive Portugaise de Tunis, XVIII-XIX siecles.”
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows users to draft and edit the entries, takes Allen’s mother’s Judaism as a given, saying that “Henrietta Lumbroso was a Jewish immigrant of Tunisian/Italian/French background.”
Malka, the Sephardic expert, said, “Interfaith marriage and/or baptism was extremely rare among the Jews of Tunisia in the early 20th century — mainly because the sense of being Jewish was very strong and it would have been greatly frowned on.”
There are intimations in Jennifer Allen’s book of the family’s Jewish connection. She writes that when the Germans invaded North Africa during World War II, “the Nazis took away my mother’s father,” although he escaped from harm.
Senator Allen told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 2000 that his grandfather was imprisoned because “he sympathized with the Free French and the Allies and coveted the concepts of freedom of thought, expression, religious belief and enterprise.”
In another of the book’s anecdotes, George Allen Sr., a practicing Roman Catholic, encounters problems when he wants to marry his fiancee, Etty, in a Catholic church.
“The priest said he would marry them only if Mom agreed to raise as Catholic any children the marriage might produce,” Jennifer Allen wrote. “As a young woman, my mother had an ‘incident’ with a priest in Tunis, so Mom said ‘Over my dead body’ to the priest. My mother and father were married by a justice of the peace in a Jewish friend’s home with two witnesses.”
Why was there any question as to whether Etty Allen would raise the family Catholic, unless she herself wasn’t baptized in the faith?
An e-mail message to Jennifer Allen came back with an automated reply saying that she was on vacation and not reading her messages.
Senator Allen has been addressing the recent controversy. He issued a statement to CNN in which he apologized to “anyone who may have [been] offended by the misinterpretation of my remarks” and said the jibe at the cameraman “was in no way intended to be racially derogatory.” The young man, S.R. Sidarth, has said that he perceived the name as a racial comment.
Allen said in the statement that another comment he made to the young man — “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” — was actually directed at his Democratic opponent, James Webb.
“In singling out the Webb campaign’s cameraman, I was trying to make the point that Jim Webb had never been to that part of Virginia — and I encouraged him to bring the tape back to Jim and welcome him to the real world of Virginia and America, outside the Beltway, where he has rarely visited,” Allen said.
Despite Allen’s explanations, the macaca episode appears to have damaged him. Before the incident, polls had the senator leading Webb by about 19 percentage points; two polls taken afterward show him up by only three to five points.
The above article can be found here: http://www.forward.com/articles/1442/
‘George Allen to Try for Senate Comeback?’CBS News, October 7, 2010
Former Virginia Sen. George Allen appears to be preparing for an attempt at a 2012 Senate comeback.
The Republican narrowly lost his Senate seat to Democrat Jim Webb in 2006 after a video clip of Allen calling an opposition staffer “Macaca” went viral online.
The incident did not end his political career, however: This year, the former Virginia governor and senator has held nearly 100 public events, including 20 campaign events for Virginia congressional candidates in this month alone, Politico reports. The news outlet also notes that Allen recently met with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn to discuss a potential Senate rematch against Webb.
“He’s been telling people privately for a couple weeks that he’s in,” an unnamed source told Politico. “It definitely seems like he’s running.”
At a fundraiser for a Virginia state lawmaker last week, Allen addressed the speculation but said he has no solid plans yet, the News Virginian reported.
“I have no timetable. My focus is on helping other candidates,” Allen said. He added that he’s now focused on bolstering Virginia’s Republican congressional delegation.
The above article can be found here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20018942-503544.html