By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
Yehuda Avner’s 2010 book “The Prime Ministers” reveals a tradition of voracious readers among Israel’s leaders, whose homes were lined with books in multiple languages. While those homes remind Tevi Troy of the residences of America’s founding fathers, Troy’s new book begins with President Barack Obama’s reference to the cast of the “Jersey Shore” reality TV show during the Congressional battle over health care.
Troy, who served as White House Liaison to the Jewish community in the administration of George W. Bush, believes current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reading habits fall in line with the scholarly group of early Israeli leaders depicted by Avner. But in “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House,” Troy chronicles the opposite trend developing in the U.S.
Israel’s youth as a nation when compared to the U.S. likely accounts for this discrepancy, he says in an interview.
“Maybe there’s something about the original founding generation, that in order to establish a state or know what makes a good government, you need to be a reader to be steeped in these great questions that man has debated for centuries,” Troy tells JNS.org. “Whereas when you’re a caretaker leader, perhaps you don’t need to read as carefully.”
Troy’s book lays out a historical trajectory in which the increasing prevalence of pop culture in American society has meant that U.S. presidents must be in tune with that culture in order to both get elected and then be “men of the people” while in office. What presidents may sacrifice in the process of immersing themselves in pop culture, however, is their ability to be scholars and “men of higher understanding,” Troy writes.
What does that trend mean for American Jews? Troy tells JNS.org that pop culture is disproportionately shaped by Jewish voices, so if a president needs to be aware of the culture, the president is “clearly aware” of Jewish influences on culture as well.
Troy also chronicles a long history of American
presidents welcoming Jewish artists to the White House. But he believes the era of Obama might mark a shift.
“I think in some of these periods, Jews had a special status, because it was easier and safer politically to bring a Jewish artist than an African American artist [to the White House], for example, in some earlier and less enlightened times,” Troy says. “So I think that Obama signals kind of the end of this special relationship between presidents and Jewish artists for two reasons. One is that just his existence signals that we