When a nice Jewish girl gets embroiled in a scandal

I have never given a moment's thought to Gennifer Flowers or Paula Jones. Never wondered about their backgrounds, their parents, their education. I assumed that they were part of a right-wing cabal and had trailer-park ethics. I assumed they were after the presidential deep pockets, looking for money. They were from another part of the world, an "Arkansas" that was as much a mindset as a place and had nothing to do with the New York-California-Jewish axis that defines you and me.

This time, as the Clinton administration becomes enveloped in sex scandal, it's different. Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House intern whose allegations brought on the worst political crisis of the decade, is one of our own.

Will a "nice Jewish girl" from a wealthy upwardly mobile family bring down the Clinton White House? The question is too titillating to ignore, too unnerving to bear.

This is a question we in the Jewish community must come to grips with on our own. We know this young woman. She is us, a product of our homes. She is our daughter. She is our younger, more naive selves.

Don't be fooled by the $1.6 million price tag on the house where she was raised, or the $20,000 vacations or the fancy cars.

Money does not separate the Lewinskys from you and me. She comes from a family much like our own, where the tensions of the 20th century were played out each night at the dinner table.

Of all the facts of Monica Lewinsky's young life, this is the one that grabs the throat: Bernard Lewinsky, Monica's father, a radiation oncologist, was born in El Salvador in 1943. Conceivably, his parents, like most of the Latin American Jewish community, came fleeing the Holocaust. According to divorce proceedings reported in the New York Times, there was nightly bickering at the dining room table, with the father's insults so severe that Monica fled to her room in tears.

Did the rage and anger expressed at the family dinner table somehow evolve into the Clinton affair? Is the Lewinsky family a variation on the "Shine" syndrome, in which a father's unresolved contact with history explodes at the family's expense? And if not the Holocaust, what other wart of history hung over that family? Tragedy does not spring from nowhere. Why didn't Monica Lewinsky, questioned for nine hours by Secret Service, call her father until her mother insisted? Why did Lewinsky reportedly at first refuse her father's help, even that of his attorney? Look to your own family for an answer.

America will not help us face this issue. It will not help us come to grips with ourselves. In fact, on the surface, America seems not to know or care about Lewinsky except as a variation on a Clinton theme. The tabloids have been kind to date: I have seen not a single mention of Lewinsky's Jewish roots including her start in Los Angeles' Conservative Sinai Temple Hebrew school, where her mother, now called Marcia Lewis, did her turn assisting at Purim and Passover programs. As with Heidi Fleiss and Ron Goldman, code words are today used to imply what once would have been explicitly named. "Beverly Hills" or "wealthy doctor father" have been allowed to suffice.

And yet, this very lack of cultural specificity is dangerous, for a Jewish community that still doesn't know who it is.

We have yet to accept our history for its good and its ill. We have yet to find a way to discuss constructively the personal cost of the 20th century on our psyches and our homes: the diaspora, the pogroms, the constant uprooting only to strive again. Silence is deafening.

"There's no Jewish issue here," I heard over and over the past week. Instead, the Jewish community is shutting down. A Jewish community leader told me he was wearing his gold saxophone pin, hoping the scandal will blow over. On America Online's Jewish Community (keyword: JEWISH) chat last week I repeatedly heard this script: "Monica's Jewish?" "Then how Jewish?" "Does she belong to a synagogue?" "Well, then does she keep kosher?" This is the kind of denial that can turn into blindness.

I understand the impulse. I, too, want this scandal to end. In fact, I am prepared to argue that Clinton's sex life, even with a nice Jewish girl, is his own business. But I'd also argue that the character and lack of judgment of that nice Jewish girl is our business.

Our silence does not hide our shame. Jewish women in particular tell me they feel enraged, threatened, isolated and censored by the events of last week. Some of this is the universally shared sense of betrayal by Clinton, a man who, as Tom Friedman so well stated it, impeached his own character "with low crimes and Miss-demeanors."

But more uniquely, Jewish women understand that our families are substantively different from other families. We still train our girls to worship power, to get their success vicariously, to vamp for Daddy, and if not for him, then the powerful men who will take away Daddy's pain.

Do not confuse the pain of Jewish women regarding Lewinsky with garden-variety feminism. This is not the Packwood affair. Sen. Bob Packwood's women detested him. With Lewinsky, the problem is more intimate; it is love.

I feel a kinship with Lewinsky, not in her strengths but in her weakness. She is every single mother's nightmare, and every single Jewish mother's tragic foreboding. Clinton said he had an "emotional" relationship with this child of a broken home. To which this Jewish mother says: God help us all.