FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — If you need proof that this is the most important election in a generation, get this: Jewish grandkids are flying to Florida to visit their grandparents -- without being guilted into it -- to talk their elders out of voting for John McCain.
The Jewish Council for Education and Research -- a new pro-Obama political action committee -- is organizing "The Great Schlep," in which hundreds of Jews will make the Southern exodus on Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 10-13. They will travel to the Fort Lauderdale area, where they will visit their grandparents, organize political salons in their condos and eat incredibly bad food. The grandkids also will meet up at a bar one night, which -- if the psychological impact of spending a few days with frail, elderly, widowed relatives is taken fully into account -- may do more to repopulate the world's Jews than the creation of Israel.
More than hockey moms or gun-toting God lovers, old Floridian Jews are the most important demographic in this election. They make up about 5% of the voters in a swing state with 27 electoral college votes. They never miss so much as a condo board vote and are normally reliable Democrats.
Barack Obama's trouble winning over older Jewish voters has been difficult for pollsters to explain, so I came here this week to visit my grandmother, Mama Ann, and find out what the hang-up is. After a long discussion about policy, I asked her if the reason she was leaning toward voting for McCain was because Obama is black. She assured me that it was not. Though during dinner, she did casually mention that her grandfather used to express a superstition that if you ate marrow, you'd date a black man. I had no idea that for so many generations, Jews have hated marrow.
Mama Ann thought the three days of the Great Schlep would be very effective. "Oh boy, the grandparents will start cooking three days ahead," she said, making me worry that many Schleppers won't last through three days of canned pineapple and dry chicken. "If they see their grandchildren, they'll go along. They just need more assurance on Israel." Israel, Mama Ann explained, is the key issue her condo friends vote on. When McCain sings about bombing Iran, he is singing a sweet serenade to Florida's electoral collegians.
To persuade Mama Ann to vote for Obama, I used many of the talking points suggested to me by Great Schlep organizer Mik Moore. These included the fact that Obama went to Columbia and Harvard, and McCain got bad grades in college; that Obama has been criticized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson; and that Obama ran the business side of his campaign better than any other candidate. I did not know that I could be so racially offended by my own people.
After convincing Mama Ann not to vote for McCain, I then had to persuade her not to write in Hillary Clinton, who the old Jews here love for her feisty, scrappy Estelle Getty-ness.
Feeling confident, I headed down to the condo Hadassah meeting, where I asked some people who they were voting for. A few had Obama buttons in Hebrew. One wanted to tell me how Lyndon Johnson helped the Jews more than people know. Seven wanted to set me up with their granddaughters despite the fact that I was wearing my wedding ring.
But many more were sure Obama was Muslim and that extremist Arabs "had his ear." I strongly urge Obama to take one day off campaigning and go to a courthouse to legally change his middle name from "Hussein" to "Seriously, People, I'm Not a Muslim."
Having tackled the Hadassah meeting, I drove over to Palm Beach with Mama Ann to talk to her first cousin, Rochelle Bramsen. When Rochelle's daughter and son-in-law, whom she lives with, argued for Obama, she bristled. I joined in, and asked -- as suggested by the talking points -- if she inaccurately thought Obama was a Muslim. Both Aunt Rochelle and Mama Ann said yes, they thought he was. When we all tired of arguing about that, I asked if it would be such a big deal if Obama were a Muslim. This was, I quickly realized, not on the list of recommended talking points for good reason.
"For me, personally, that would be an issue," said Rochelle. Thinking we'd trapped her in a rhetorical corner, her kids and I asked why Muslims in office would be worse than Christians. To which Rochelle deftly responded, "Who says I'm OK with Christians?"
Rochelle was also upset that Obama didn't wear an American flag lapel pin at first. I asked Rochelle if she wore a flag pin. "No, but I expect more from our leaders," she said. I am pretty sure Rochelle just doesn't trust anyone who doesn't wear at least some jewelry.
Still, by the end of our discussion, Rochelle seemed to have joined Mama Ann as an Obama supporter. But there's a fair chance that by Columbus Day, both Mama Ann and Aunt Rochelle will have forgotten that.
So it's important that other grandchildren -- hopefully some who are vaguely my age and shape -- fly down here for the Great Schlep salons. Even if they fail, they won't be sorry: I saw a movie for $3.50, had dinner for $10 and was treated like whatever the Jewish equivalent of a saint is by everyone in the condo complex just for stopping by. I say we do this every Columbus Day. Next year, hopefully, we'll be hanging poolside with retiree John McCain.