DELRAY BEACH, Fla.”“Here at Poppies Deli, a slice of home in the sunshine for Jews from the northeastern United States, there are 12 types of bagels on the menu but only two presidential candidates to talk about.
And for nine more days, political opinions will pour forth like the coffee urns placed on every table.
Presidential races have not been this hotly debated in Florida’s Jewish community in years, nor have Jewish votes been so ferociously sought.
Some reliably Democratic members of the Florida Jewish community appeared to waiver this year, as concerns about Barack Obama’s race, religion, questionable associates and views on the Middle East washed over them in a wave of ads, rumours, gossip-mongering and viral Internet messages.
To win his increasingly long-shot bid for the White House, Republican John McCain needs Florida’s 27 electoral votes on Nov. 4. And to win Florida, he must make inroads in the Jewish community in towns like this one, about 50 kilometres north of Fort Lauderdale.
But no one at Poppies during a late lunch yesterday was buying into the fear, another sign ““ buttressed by polling data ““ that Obama may be rising to the traditional level of support Florida Jews have afforded Democrats.
“I am fiercely anti-McCain,” says Ruth Spitalnick, sitting over an omelette with retired husband Irving as she announces the end of her long-time allegiance to the Republican party.
“We have information that he is a very hot-headed man. He is a curser, a big curser. I don’t like cursers.”
Adds her hubby: “I do not want his finger anywhere near that red button under any circumstances.”
Ruth has no doubt Obama will surround himself with smart advisers and a first-rate cabinet.
“He won’t be persuaded to vote black,” she says, putting air quotes around that last word and referencing one of the stories about Obama on the street here.
This one goes that somehow the election of a black man will lead to a surge of “black-first” policies, representing the pent-up anger and repression of African-Americans who will look to Obama to redress years of wrongs.
Sylvia Wolfe-Herman, who works for the Obama campaign in the Jewish community, has heard all the “myths and lies” and spends much of her time in the supermarkets, delis and kosher butchers’ trying to rebut them.
“It’s the bogeyman syndrome,” she says. “Some people are frightened. The name ““ Barack Hussein Obama ““ it scares people.
“It’s like when we were fighting in Vietnam and communist was such a naughty word.
“Now, Muslim is a naughty word.”
But some people here embrace Obama because of his race.
“I like the idea that he is a minority candidate,” says Sara Fishkin, who moved here from New Jersey. “As a Jew, I am a minority, too.”
The Jewish vote is estimated at anywhere from 5 to 8 per cent of the total electorate in Florida, a state known for its traditionally close and controversial races.
High hopes for Democrats have been dashed twice this decade and they have won the state only three times in the past 12 elections.
But the Jewish vote was always safe for the party, because of the influx of northerners from reliably Democratic states.
Worries this year moved comic Sarah Silverman to release a video urging Jewish grandchildren to make “The Grand Schlep” down to Florida to convince their grandparents there is nothing scary about Obama.
She reminded them that blacks and Jews share an affinity for tracksuits, Cadillacs “and bling and money and jewellery and stuff.”
Jackie Mason, another Jewish comic, countered with his own video, calling Obama a purveyor of “worthless, meaningless phraseology.”
If you had heart trouble, “God forbid,” Mason asks, would you go to a doctor because of his appearance and style and because he could say a “a few fancy phrases about hearts” or would you go to somebody with a track record of fixing hearts?
“Concerned About Barack Obama? You Should Be,” is the theme that runs through campaign ads placed by the Republican Jewish Coalition.
One ad claims Obama’s advisers are “pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, even hostile to America.”
“You can know a man by the company he keeps,” the ad says.
The National Jewish Democratic Council has denounced the ads as smears and lies, and it touts a Gallup poll showing Obama now rising to 74 per cent support in the Jewish community nationwide.
At Poppies, there are no concerns that Obama could open direct talks with Iranian President and arch-enemy of Israel Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ““ the concept is embraced ““ and no worries that he is anything short of a true friend of Israel.
There is frustration with the war in Iraq and America’s image abroad. And there is unhappiness with some of McCain’s negative campaigning as well as hostility toward his running mate, Sarah Palin.
Transplanted Bostonian Martin Yogel will vote Republican in congressional races but might pass on McCain because of his dislike for Palin.
“She’s the biggest phony liar and I don’t mind saying that,” agrees Ruth Spitalnick.
Obama worker Wolfe-Herman adds her own take on the running mates: “Sarah Palin? Oh my God. Joe Biden, now there’s a smart man with a good brain. He has a big mouth, but a good brain.”