Alcee Hastings’s Yiddishe Kop

‘Goldenberg, how is it that I know Yiddish and you don’t?’ Hastings once asked his chief of staff

The special House election to replace the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) has, barring a few exceptions, moved along at a relatively lethargic pace — and that dynamic seems unlikely to change as the election wraps up on Tuesday, with a clear frontrunner yet to emerge.

It’s anyone’s guess who among the five or six top-tier contenders in the 11-candidate primary — including a handful of elected officials and one big-spending CEO — will prevail next week. 

One thing remains clear: Hastings, the charismatic former longtime dean of Florida’s congressional delegation, who died last April at 84 from pancreatic cancer, looms over the election. 

It would be unreasonable to expect that any single candidate could prove capable of harnessing voter enthusiasm as Hastings did throughout nearly 30 years in the House, and particularly in such a crowded field. But even as some have cast themselves as faithful stewards of Hastings’s legacy, the low-profile race has exposed a void in Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which includes parts of West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, that has come to feel increasingly palpable as the election enters the final stretch. 

“The magic word for me is levity,” Hastings’s son, Alcee Hastings II, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, putting a finger on what he views as the missing ingredient in a consequential race that has largely failed to capture the national spotlight.

Hastings, who grew up in the segregated South, seems to have worn light-heartedness like a shield. The trailblazing civil rights lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, whose promising judicial career as Florida’s first Black federal judge was cut short by a House impeachment in 1988, found refuge just five years later in the same legislative body that had only recently taken him down.

The House suited his combative and linguistically dexterous oratorical style, which he put to use as an outspoken advocate for racial justice, human rights and Israel, among other causes. But perhaps most notably, former friends and colleagues say, the 15-term congressman never lost his capacity for warmth and humor as his outsized personality propelled him through a challenging mid-career stumble.

“One of the things I learned about him when we worked together, just in a moment of relaxation, was that he, like me, loved Mel Brooks,” said former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who developed a close relationship with Hastings during Lieberman’s time in the upper chamber. 

Their bond, like many aspects of Hastings’s improbable trajectory, was fortuitous, not least because Lieberman had served on the impeachment trial committee that would ultimately lead to Hastings’s conviction in the Senate. 

But Lieberman was unconvinced by the corruption charges, and was among the minority of senators who voted in favor of acquittal. “We had a sort of natural affinity,” Lieberman said of Hastings, who returned the favor years later when he endorsed the former senator’s failed 2004 presidential bid. “He was very grateful that I had come to that conclusion, although it didn’t affect the outcome for him, and we just kept in touch.”

A recurring subject of discussion was, he said, one of their favorite comedians. “We always talked about Mel Brooks,” Lieberman chuckled.

“He had a delightful sense of humor,” Rabbi Mark Winer, the president of the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus, said of Hastings. “He wore very loud socks. He was really an exemplary man. Perfect? No. But we could talk about anything with Alcee Hastings” — in more than one language. 

“He could speak Yiddish,” remarked Len Ronik, a Jewish resident of Tamarac, which sits in the 20th District, who met Hastings a number of times. “We would say a couple of phrases. I didn’t want to push how far he could go.”

But Ronik might have been pleased to discover that the late congressman could go further than he expected — more than a bissel, at least. Hastings’s command of Yiddish, according to those who heard him in action, extended beyond the usual stock expressions, though he was fond of peppering his speech with those as well.

David Goldenberg, who worked as chief of staff for Hastings in Washington, recalled walking into his old boss’s office one day and encountering a mystifying utterance. “He was frustrated about something, and he said something to me in Yiddish,” said Goldenberg, now Midwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. “I gave him this blank stare, and he said, ‘Goldenberg, how is it that I know Yiddish and you don’t?’”

“My dad was a country boy, but he could get intellectually unbelievable with the best of them in all arenas,” Hastings II said. “It probably is the bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs.”

Hastings wasn’t exactly fluent, Goldenberg said, but his command of the language was hardly superficial. On a separate occasion, Goldenberg remembered watching with a mix of awe and fascination when, after introducing Hastings to his future wife’s 80-year-old grandmother in Chicago, he began conversing with her in broken Yiddish.

The encounter was a lasting source of amusement between Hastings and Goldenberg. “What would bubbe say?” Hastings liked to tease his former staffer when Yiddish came up in conversation.

The congressman’s knowledge of Yiddish does not appear to have been previously reported, and even his son, Hastings II, pled ignorance when asked for confirmation. “I don’t know that, to be honest with you,” he told JI. “He never did it with me.”

It didn’t seem to surprise him, though. “My dad was a country boy, but he could get intellectually unbelievable with the best of them in all arenas,” Hastings II said. “It probably is the bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs. I went to a few myself, but I don’t have any knowledge of that personally.”

“He used to joke that he’s been to more bar mitzvahs than anybody you’ll ever meet,” Goldenberg said of Hastings.

An exaggeration, of course, but not entirely unbelievable. Hastings spent a portion of his childhood in and around Jewish households in New York and California, where his parents worked as live-in domestic servants — the moment when, as he recalled in a personal essay, his “lifelong relationship with the Jewish community began.”

“As a youth, I have many fond memories of attending bar mitzvahs, learning about the Jewish faith and even working as a short order cook in a Jewish delicatessen named Spector’s in Margate, New Jersey,” Hastings wrote three years ago, omitting that he had also once been employed as a babysitter for the filmmaker John Landis in Los Angeles. “Although I am not of the Jewish faith, I count myself lucky to be deeply rooted in the Jewish community.”

“Half the time you thought he was Jewish, with his jokes and different things,” said Mitch Ceasar, the former longtime chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, who knew Hastings for 47 years. 

When Ceasar’s daughter had her bat mitzvah nearly 20 years ago, Hastings was inevitably there in the audience. “He started chanting,” Ceasar said, recalling that the congressman displayed a firm command of the Hebrew prayers. “Everybody noticed he knew the words and didn’t need a book.” The rabbi was so impressed that he asked him to come up to the bimah and speak. Despite his penchant for sermonizing, Hastings declined, mindful not to steal the spotlight.

“He never hesitated, even during the course of his illness,” recalled Burt Scholl. “There was always a vitality in his speech that somehow could stimulate people. Even audiences who were usually tepid about most political issues somehow were energized by what he said.”

Hastings’s familiarity with Jewish liturgy — as well as Yiddish — was a natural extension of his boyhood experiences in Jewish homes and synagogues. “He just always marveled at the nucleus of the Jewish family and how they were so warm to each other and committed to the next generation,” said Ron Klein, a former Florida congressman who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Hastings found particular inspiration in the generation of Jewish immigrants from Europe he got to know as a kid, according to Klein, moved by their resilience in the face of discrimination with which he was all too familiar.

Later, he told stories about studying for the bar exam with Jewish friends during a time of entrenched racial segregation in South Florida that he would work to dismantle. Early in his career, he practiced law with Jewish lawyers.

In many ways, Hastings embodied the coalition between Black and Jewish leaders forged during the civil rights era, and he remained committed to that alliance throughout his time in the House as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who worked to advance Black-Jewish relations.

Hastings deepened his ties with the Jewish community in South Florida following the last round of redistricting in 2012, when the sprawling Kings Point condominium complex came under his representation. The retirement community of 9,000 residents is home to a sizable Jewish population, and Hastings made his presence known, publishing a column in the Kings Point newspaper and frequently accepting invitations to events and fundraisers.

“He never hesitated, even during the course of his illness,” recalled Burt Scholl, a former vice president of the Kings Point Democratic Club. “He made appearances whenever he could. There was always a vitality in his speech that somehow could stimulate people. Even audiences who were usually tepid about most political issues somehow were energized by what he said.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, the spiritual leader at Temple Israel of West Palm Beach, a Reform synagogue, met Hastings only once at an anti-gun rally following the Parkland school shooting in 2018. But the memory remains vivid in his mind. “He took my hand warmly,” Salkin recalled. “It was clear that it was his night. He had total command over the audience, and he understood his role as a comforter as well. I saw a humanity and a humility in him in which he did not grandstand but rather spoke the truth about what was on everyone’s hearts.”

“He was a complex and imperfect man, like all good biblical heroes,” Salkin said of Hastings, who later in his career faced allegations of sexual misconduct, which resulted in a settlement paid by the Treasury Department, as well as an ethics investigation that was ultimately dropped. “He left a legacy of community building and deep relationships. That will not be an easy legacy to either replace or replicate. The man exuded confidence and charisma.”

For Hastings, engendering relationships with the Jewish community went hand in hand with his staunch support for Israel. The congressman was among the Jewish state’s fiercest defenders in Congress and visited Israel an estimated 20 times. In 2007, he helped grow a forest in the northern Galilee — named after the civil rights leader Coretta Scott King — that had been destroyed the year prior during the war with Hezbollah. In 2015, Hastings voted against the Iran nuclear deal.

“I never had to worry about his vote,” said Rabbi Leonid Feldman of Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in West Palm Beach.

Luis Fleischman, the former longtime vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Palm Beach County, agreed. “He stood with us, I would say, 100%,” Fleischman said of Hastings, “even at times when I thought he wouldn’t.”

Putting aside the sincerity of his convictions, there was a strong incentive for Hastings to adopt a pro-Israel stance in South Florida, which is heavily Jewish, according to Charles Zelden, a professor of history at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “I am sure that there was a firm belief. He found allies in the Jewish community. He was comfortable with them,” Zelden said. “But it also wasn’t bad politics, and he was, if nothing else, a very skilled politician.”

But Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), one of three Jewish Democratic House members in Florida, said Hastings’s foreign policy views went well beyond mere political calculation.

“Alcee was a proud defender of the U.S.-Israel relationship because he understood the history of Israel, he understood Israel’s place in the Middle East, and he understood why Israel is such a vital ally and good friend of the United States,” Deutch told JI. “Most importantly, in the Democratic Party, he understood why supporting Israel was entirely consistent with his progressive view of the world, and that’s a really important legacy that he left for all of us.”

As the special election nears, pro-Israel advocates in South Florida and beyond are unnerved by one candidate whose views on Israel threaten to undo that legacy. In a recent interview with JI, State Rep. Omari Hardy, a progressive Democrat from Palm Beach County, came out in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Jewish state while stating his firm opposition to legislation that would grant $1 billion in supplemental aid for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. He also supports conditioning aid to Israel.

Hardy is the only candidate in the race to have espoused such positions. Others — including state Sen. Perry Thurston, state Rep. Bobby DuBose, healthcare executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick and Broward County Commissioners Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief — have vowed to continue Hastings’s pro-Israel legacy in Congress. 

But while Hardy has struggled to emerge as a leading contender against some of the more established elected officials in the race, for many, his views amount to a refutation of Hastings’s Middle East foreign policy agenda. 

“Let me be clear,” said Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s director of emergency management, who counts Hastings as a major influence, “whoever replaces Alcee Hastings, if they are anti-Israel and pro-BDS, by default, not only do they have no respect for Alcee Hastings, but they are going to undo a big part of his legacy.”

Hardy, for his part, begs to differ. “Everyone in this race has a healthy respect for Rep. Hastings, but none of us are running to be his clone,” he said in an interview with JI this week after Hastings’s son claimed that Hardy’s stance suggests that he is “well out of his arena to understand the dynamic of what Congress is about and what the importance of Israel is to America as an ally.”

“I understand some folks might want to speculate as to what Rep. Hastings would think about my support for human rights,” Hardy went on. “I think it’s hard to tell what he would think, being as he and I have never had an opportunity to converse. I’ve never had an opportunity to explain to him my thoughts on the issue. So the speculation as to what he might believe about my position is just that: speculation.”

Either way, the nature of the debate was telling. Hastings’ presence hangs so heavily over the race that even with just days to go until the election concludes, at least one candidate has inevitably found himself reckoning with the congressman’s long shadow.

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