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Jewish Seniors in South Florida Anxious About Obama But Still Support Him

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DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - At Poppies Restaurant in Delray Beach Jewish retirees expounded over coffee cake on their presidential preferences, rapidly shaking up at least two myths floating in the back of my thoughts. Myth 1: Israel is the fundamental litmus test. Myth 2: Obama's race and name are a problem. While periodically I encountered people who confirmed such myths in the near hundred conversations I had with elderly Jewish voters in South Florida two weeks before the election, on the whole I discovered an army of fairly liberal Democrats enthusiastic in their support for Obama, a good sign for the candidate at a time when current polls indicate he has anywhere from a 5 percent lead to a 1 percent deficit in this critical swing state.

Many of these older voters have longstanding, unshakable roots in the Democratic Party, people like Flora Lapinsky who announced she was "Democrat across the board," slicing her hand decisively through the air with a conviction suggesting she hasn't wavered ideologically since Roosevelt's first fireside chats.

A small counterbalancing cadre of McCain supporters and a sprinkling of undecideds added up to numbers much in line with Jewish voting behavior in the 2004 and 2000 elections. 2004 exit polls show 20 percent of Florida Jews voted for George Bush (25 percent nationally). While in 2000, 12 percent of Florida Jews supported Bush (19 percent nationally).

Among Jewish voters, who constitute about 5 percent of the Florida electorate, the only recent national poll was conducted in late September by the non-partisan American Jewish Committee, showing only 57 percent support for Obama. Democrats have expressed concern that older Jews may hesitate to support a candidate whose youth, ethnicity, and personal background might seem alien, a concern comedian Sarah Silverman humorously addressed in her recent promotional video for The Great Schlep, a campaign that encouraged young Jews to visit their grandparents in Florida and urge a vote for Obama. But, while elders often did express anxieties about Obama's character and background, they focused primarily on the same broad array of concerns as the rest of the electorate: the state of the economy, the Iraq War, improving America's international standing, health care, and abortion.

At the same time, many of these older Jewish voters, who rely largely on television news, are susceptible to misinformation and mythologies that leave them conflicted, and in some cases, deeply fearful about Obama.

Haile Soifer, Florida Director of the Jewish Vote for the Obama campaign, said the campaign's greatest challenge has been "the erroneous links that have been made between Senator Obama and pals who are not his pals."

While several people brought up ACORN, Bill Ayers, and donations from undisclosed overseas sources, the candidate's association that provokes greatest concern remains Jeremiah Wright. For some Jews, Wright's toxicity goes beyond a supposed anti-Americanism to an alleged association between the candidate's former pastor and other seemingly fire-breathing black preachers, particularly Louis Farrakhan.

Daniel Rosenfeld of Delray Beach insisted inaccurately that Farrakhan was a frequent speaker at Wright's Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago. Seymour Biale, speaking poolside at the Century Village retirement complex in Deerfield Beach, told me the church "made Farrakhan Man of the Year." (a church publication honored Farrakhan last year). But in the syllogistic emotional logic of these voters, Obama equates to Reverend Wright, who equates to Farrakhan, who equates to black Muslim anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel.

Many older Jews continue to believe that Obama is Muslim, further conflating their racial and religious confusion. Biale explained that while he believes Obama is not actively Muslim, he sees the candidate as likely sympathetic to Islam, claiming that Obama's father and stepfather were Muslim and that he attended a Muslim school in Indonesia (the only religious school Obama actually attended in Indonesia was Catholic). Biale, however, reflects on Obama's personal history calmly, does not demonize him, and plans to vote for him. Biale has been swayed largely by his trust in Joe Biden's commitment to Israel and a distaste for Sarah Palin.

Another voter at the Deerfield Beach Century Village I was surprised to find supporting Obama was Bob Goldman, who initially identified himself as undecided and compared Jeremiah Wright to Hitler. Yet after building trust with me in a conversation at the clubhouse, Goldman revealed he was strongly leaning Obama because he respects the man's intelligence and recent judgment in volatile economic times. Thoughtful reflection appeared to dissipate the mental fumes around Wright's alleged hate speech.

The essential lesson I received in my conversations at delis, card tables, and clubhouse lobbies across greater Miami is that the sometimes unconscious constellation of anxieties and misassociations these voters have often does not stop them from supporting Obama. Call it the Goldman Effect. The media tend to report the electorate's prejudices and misconceptions about Obama as blunted, opaque simplifications presumably based on wholesale rumor swallowing, and fail to explore the sometimes textured, though distorted, thinking beneath these views. Getting below the surface of mistaken beliefs is valuable because it can reveal counterintuitive voting behavior.

There are, however, people with singleminded fears that render them unable to consider Obama. Two people I spoke with vociferously rejected Obama solely because of race, and nearly everyone claimed to know some fellow retiree who will not vote for a black man. One woman, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in Florida's discredited primary, told me it's not Obama himself that upsets her, but what she fears his presidency will trigger racially.

"I feel if a black gets elected, black people will think they can get power and it will lead to a revolution." In other words, blacks are quietly seething, awaiting payback day.

This kind of fear-driven insularity was most prominent in the small orthodox Jewish community located in Miami Beach. During the several hours I spent circulating in the kosher restaurants along Arthur Godfrey Road, I met Eva Muller sitting with her 10 year old daughter Stella inside Pita Hut. Dressed in traditional orthodox attire, entirely in black including head covering, she said "whatever the Jewish school where my daughter goes, that's the way I vote. I take her into the voting booth with me." She turned to Stella to ask the school's recommendation and Stella replied "McCain's gonna be good for Israel."

The politics of the orthodox community here is a reverse mirror image of the mainstream Jewish community's, supporting McCain overwhelmingly. Some opt to stay out of politics and I found only an occasional Obama outlier. Any Obama supporter is just as likely to focus on protecting the Jewish community, but draws different conclusions. Republican Bobby Zav reasoned that the anti-Americanism he believes might result from what he sees as McCain's proclivity towards military action could produce a backlash against Jews and the state of Israel.

The majority of the community's support for McCain is often coupled with a positive view of Sarah Palin, whom many admire for an openly religious self-presentation. Salvador Behar, a Cuban-born Jew who owns a clothing boutique on Arthur Godfrey, questions Palin's experience, but argued "she's going to encourage religion and that makes it easier when I want to walk around Miami Beach wearing a yarmulke."

South Florida's general population of Jewish elders roundly dislikes Palin, perhaps the most consistently shared view I encountered. She was criticized for inexperience, her anti-choice stance, her approach to mothering, and for her selectively embracing a "real" America that most urban Jewish retirees sense does not include them.

Palin has both energized Jewish elders' passions and contributed to some cynicism about politics, a cynicism borne in part from Florida's having been disenfranchised in the primaries and the 2000 electoral debacle when several thousand Jewish voters here in Palm Beach County mistakenly cast votes for Pat Buchanan with the infamous butterfly ballot.

Among all the issues Jewish retirees weigh in their decision, perhaps age is the closest to home. In another lifetime, someone noted, McCain might himself be living in a retirement center.

"McCain doesn't look like a man about to be president," said Ted Schneider of Century Village. "He looks the way you look at the end of being president."

Outside Poppies, Flora Wiener was crossing the parking lot with a walker when I asked her who she was voting for. She stopped, took off her oversized sunglasses, and told me "I may not be around so long to see what he can do, but I know where to put my vote: that young one."