Editor’s Note, Nov. 7, 2020: Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff are officially going to be the nation’s first Second Family.
As you may have heard, Sen. Kamala Harris
would WILL be a historic vice president. Most attention has rightly been focused on the barriers she’ll break as the first woman, the first African American, and the first Indian American to hold that office. There is, however, another barrier of importance—one that before the Civil Rights era would have been just as unthinkable—relating to Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, who is the potential first Second Gentleman. They could will be the first Second Family built around an interracial marriage, as well as the first to include a non-Christian spouse—Emhoff is Jewish.
I want to talk about both of these breakthroughs, but given our country’s long and sordid history with Black-white unions, let’s start with that aspect. It’s mind-blowing to think that only 53 years have passed since the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, declared unconstitutional the laws banning interracial marriages that many states still had on the books. Just 19 years before that, in 1948, California—Harris’ home state—became the first one since Reconstruction to strike down its own state’s anti-miscegenation law on constitutional grounds.
Just because Harris and Emhoff’s marriage is legal doesn’t mean it’s all been smooth sailing in terms of the public reaction. During Harris’ run for the White House, some raised questions and even lobbed criticism at Harris about her interracial marriage.
Today we got official confirmation of this historic milestone. This beautiful photo says it all.
In February 2019, just weeks after announcing her candidacy, she appeared on syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club, where co-host Charlamagne tha God brought up the criticism she’d faced for marrying a white man, some of which had come from African Americans.
Sen. Vice President-elect Harris responded: “Look, I love my husband and he happens to be the one I chose to marry and that was that moment in time and that’s it.”
As Colbert I. King noted in a Washington Post column on that topic, along with broader questions about her “blackness” (Daily Kos’ Denise Oliver Velez has some words for you if you have any such questions yourself): “Questions about race, sex and interracial coupling aren’t new. Warring over them is older than the Republic.” As King further explained, the first law banning white-Black marriages came into being in 1664, when Maryland passed a statute prohibiting any white woman from wedding an enslaved Black man. The punishment in that case was that the woman would then become enslaved herself.
Even now, while most Americans (83%) find interracial marriage “morally acceptable,” there remains a segment that disagrees: 15% of Latinos, 17% of whites, and 18% of African Americans find it “morally wrong.” Unsurprisingly, Democrats are more supportive than Republicans by 16%. In the half-century since the Lovings won their case, interracial and interethnic marriages have increased from 3% to 17% of all unions. We have come a long way on accepting and embracing love across various kinds of boundaries. Nevertheless, I would imagine that anyone belonging to an interracial family would feel something uniquely powerful watching
Sen. Vice President-elect Harris be sworn in as vice president of the United States, with her white husband beside her.
Another historic aspect of the
would-be soon-to-be Second Family is more specific to Harris’ husband, who is, as previously noted, not only white, but Jewish. I write from the perspective of my own experience as a Jew and my knowledge of the Jewish community, but my sense is that Jewish Americans overall, and progressive Jews in particular, are very excited about the prospect of a Jewish Second Gentleman. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of Jews consistently vote Democratic, making them the second most reliable ethnic or religious group for Democrats after Black Americans, so it’s safe to say that most Jews are in fact very excited.
Before getting into the excitement, there are some complications to discuss. The Harris-Emhoff marriage is not only interracial but interfaith. Harris, who is herself the product of an interracial and interfaith marriage, identifies as a Black Baptist; as a child her Hindu mother also shared her faith with her. Marrying a non-Jew is, for many Jews, an issue of far greater importance than marrying someone of another race or ethnicity, and one that exists separate from the matter of racial prejudice—which some people of every group unfortunately harbor.
Typically, religiously observant Jews express strong concerns about interfaith marriages. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are prohibited from performing marriage ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews. But anyone who undergoes the rigorous conversion process—Jews just want to be sure people aren’t joining solely for the gefilte fish, after all—is considered a full member of the community in the eyes of religious law, no matter their race or ethnicity. That’s not to say the Jewish community is free of racial bigotry, as Jews of color have attested.
Having said that, interfaith couples, i.e., one where conversion does not take place, are widespread, and have been for decades. According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of all married Jewish Americans have a non-Jewish partner, and the figure rises to 58% for those who took their vows after 2005. Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff are thus far from unique in that respect.
So that explains why most American Jews are kvelling over the prospect of being able to celebrate a Jewish Second Husband, along with two Jewish Second Children, Cole and Ella, from Emhoff’s previous marriage. It’s true that this isn’t the first close connection for Jews to a presidential or vice presidential nominee, or even, in the person of a certain mensch named Bernie Sanders, a top-tier candidate. The most direct connection was with someone whose name was on the (butterfly) ballot. I’m talking about Joe Lieberman, who ran alongside Al Gore in 2000. If you were inclined to forget about Lieberman, I certainly wouldn’t blame you, since he just committed the shanda of endorsing Sen. Susan Collins for reelection in Maine. Feh. Moving on, after leaving the White House, First Daughter Chelsea Clinton married a Jew. Future First Son Hunter Biden also married a Jew—a doctor no less!
At this point, you’re probably thinking: What about Ivanka Trump? Yes, she converted and became an Orthodox Jew to marry Jared Kushner. However, that doesn’t make most Jews feel any more positively toward her or her father—Jews don’t vote for the candidate with the most Jewish relatives—or feel that the Trump administration represents their values, even if it has a few Jews in high places. A higher percentage of Jewish voters chose Hillary Clinton over The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (71%) even than voted for Barack Obama in 2012 (69%)—despite Obama’s overall slightly stronger popular vote performance and the presence in 2016 of third- and fourth-party candidates who drew far more votes than four years earlier. An October 2018 poll—which is consistent with other more recent surveys—found Trump’s ratings among American Jews at 23% favorable and 76% unfavorable. I wonder why.
Jews are also especially excited about the Second Family
hopefuls because of the individuals involved. Beyond the puff pieces about Emhoff being a “hot Jewish Dad,” there is substance behind these feelings. At their interfaith wedding ceremony, Kamala and Doug broke the glass—a Jewish tradition in which the groom (and, more recently, both partners as well), stomp on a goblet just after the couple are officially married, in order to remind us—even at a moment of great joy—of the fragility of life and the suffering endured by Jews throughout our history.
Harris has also spoken of her lifelong feelings of connection to the Jewish people: “So having grown up in the Bay Area, I fondly remember those Jewish national fund boxes that we would use to collect donations to plant trees for Israel.” In her speech on the day Joe Biden announced she would be his running mate, Harris declared: “I've had a lot of titles over my career, and certainly 'vice president' will be great. But 'Momala' will always be the one that means the most.”
On the one hand, this moniker is a straightforward combination of her first name and her status as stepmother. But when Harris told America about that “title,” Jews also heard something else that touched them deeply. Although this may not be how Cole and Ella Emhoff mean it, the name “Momala,” when spoken aloud, also evokes mamelah, a Yiddish word which directly translates as “little girl,” but is often used far more broadly whenever addressing a younger loved one. As a boy, I was a tattelah rather than a mamelah, but nonetheless, Stacy Mintzler Herlihy captured what I, along with many Jews, felt hearing Harris speak about her relationship to Cole and Ella.
Just hearing that word on Harris’ lips brought back a flood of memories. When I hear the word mamaleh — or momala, however you may spell it — I am once again a little girl slurping bowls of soup while petting my grandmother’s cat. I am the small child hearing my grandma fondly call her own daughter mamaleh while looking at the two of us together with so much love you could feel it ten feet away.
For Harris and her stepchildren, as it is for so many of us, this term of endearment is our way of welcoming her into our corner of the world. I know my mom and my grandma would have loved to see how the Emhoff kids celebrated Harris in a language they knew so well.
And when my eldest daughter first heard Harris’s nickname, she grinned from ear to ear….To this day, I sneak in a loving mamaleh whenever I can. We are all generations bound together by a single world — and the hope for a broader, lovelier America.
Beyond what makes them special as people, the Harris-Emhoff family calls forth the long and rich relationship between Jewish and Black Americans—a relationship I recently discussed in more detail. Jewish support for and alliance with African Americans during the civil rights movement and beyond has meant the relationship has, overall, been a fruitful and productive one that has advanced justice and equality in our country. However, there have unfortunately been some difficult moments as well. Seeing this beautiful couple at the highest levels of our democracy should hopefully help remind members of both groups of the most positive aspects of Black-Jewish cooperation.
As a Jewish American, I have to say that, after Pittsburgh and Poway, not to mention the overall rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in my hometown of New York City, as well as nationally—where they have now reached an all-time high—I’m exhausted. I’m also angry, scared, and motivated to fight for change, and not just because I think change will improve the situation for Jews. I’m all in for the Biden-Harris ticket, and for Democrats up and down the ballot. That would be just as true whether or not Doug Emhoff were in the picture. But I have to tell you that, if all goes well, I will feel a special kind of pride knowing that the Emhoffs will be representing the Jewish community on the national stage.
If we all do our part between now and Election Day to help Sen. Harris and Vice President Biden achieve the victory our country so desperately needs, then a great number of incredible things will happen next Jan. 20. (Editor’s Note: Y’all did your part!) Among other historic firsts, as a Black woman takes the oath of office as vice president, she’ll do so standing next to her Jewish husband, as part of the first interracial and interfaith Second Family. This kind of representation won’t solve America’s myriad problems on race and religion, but it still means a great deal. It’s one more step forward on our American journey toward a more perfect union.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)