In August 1994, I was an introspective, brainy 16-year-old, fresh from a summer in Israel with a busload of other 16-year-olds. On my last morning in Jerusalem, I had watched the sun rise: cool breezes over ancient golden stones. I heard church bells ring and the Muslim call to prayer, whispering my own Hebrew dreams into fuzzy pink air. As a Jewish teen who went (reluctantly) to Israel for the Roman ruins but stayed for the prayers, when we chanted under desert stars I was suspended somewhere in between Reform Jewish teenagerhood and a future as a religious studies professor—plus my always evolving, complex relationship with Jewish adulthood.
This was when I first encountered Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Jimmy Carter, first as an emerging national politician in the mid-1970s and then as a biographical subject decades later, was the similarity of our backgrounds. Both of us were reared in evangelical households, he in rural southwest Georgia and I in Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa. We are both the oldest in our families: Carter had three younger siblings, and I have four younger brothers. We had “born-again” experiences at an early age, Carter at age 11 and me initially at, well, three years old—but that is another story.
Since 1988 there have been ten major party candidates for the office of U.S. president. Except for Bob Dole and John McCain, they all attended elite, private colleges, and seven of those eight also went to elite professional schools. All eight of them went to Harvard or Yale at some point—both of the Bushes, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Romney. Of the 14 presidential nominees between 1948 and 1984, the heyday of public universities, only three went to elite private colleges and only two attended Harvard or Yale, with a third candidate having gone to Princeton. Harry Truman didn’t go to college and Barry Goldwater didn’t finish college. Lyndon Johnson went to Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Richard Nixon to Whittier College, and Ronald Reagan to Eureka College (William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, Free Press).