A Second First

When Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate this week, news organizations commented on a number of historic firsts: the first Indian-American and African-American woman to be named to a national ticket. She would not, however, be the first person of color to hold the position of vice president if elected. That distinction goes to Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s vice president and a member of Kaw Nation.

Most mainstream news outlets failed to note another potential first in her nomination. If she were to win, her husband, Doug Emhoff, would become the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, even though her step-children would not be the first Jews in a first or second family (Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka is Jewish, but she converted).

When I informed my family of this fact they noted it with muted enthusiasm, which perhaps is a good thing. Jews have entered the upper echelons of American political life to such an extent that having a Jewish second spouse only registers a ho-hum reaction. After all, twenty years ago an Orthodox Jew almost became vice president himself.

Success is good, but maybe it also breeds complacency. We are used to seeing Jews in power or close to it, but we should also celebrate these historic firsts. In a time of increased anti-Semitism in America, we should remember that non-Jews in this country love us so much that they are willing to marry us, and long gone are the days when such a union would damage a political career.

While Harris herself is not Jewish, she does have a Yiddish-ish nickname. It seems that her step-children call her Momala (rhymes with Kamala), which they may or may not have intentionally pulled from the Yiddish word for “little mama”, mamaleh.

The Harris-Emhoff marriage is indicative of so much in America today: the melting pot, blended families, power couples, and social media (Emhoff is a big cheerleader for his wife on Instagram). Their partnership also embodies the large tent that is American Judaism; it’s not just the literal Jews who represent us, but those adjacent to us: the spouses, allies, and friends who support us.

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