- A Moroccan Kabbalist in the White House:Understanding the Relationship between Jared Kushner and Moroccan Jewish Mysticism
Few political pundits believed that Donald J. Trump would defeat a political giant like Hillary R. Clinton in the 2016 American elections. The mere image of Trump, a reality-television personality who found huge and unquestionable support among Christian evangelicals, in the White House excited derision in many liberal and conservative circles during the early days of the Republican nomination process. Like many, I had my doubts, although I also partly believed that Trump could win by riding the popular anger of many Americans, especially given his savvy populist messaging and familiarity with the television industry. Yet a number of Orthodox Jewish Moroccan informants with whom I spoke during and after the campaign never doubted that Trump would win the election. That the most significant Jewish support for Trump came from followers of the Shas Party in Israel, Chabad Lubavitch, and Orthodox and Hasidic Jews stirred my intellectual curiosity throughout both the primary and the national phases of the election. I wanted to understand why many [End Page 146] Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Moroccan Jews supported Trump as a candidate.
One of my Moroccan Jewish informants, Mordachai (informants' names are pseudonyms), a member of Shuva Israel (Return Israel; see below), noted that in Ashdod and other Moroccan ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem it was widely believed that a miracle would cause Trump to win.1 The popular opinion was that a well-respected rebbe had predicted Hillary Clinton's defeat.2 In the end, the miracle of President Trump happened, and miracle-working rabbis associated with Jared Kushner, the president's Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, wasted no time claiming that they had had something to do with it. Rabbi David Pinto3 and Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto,4 two descendants of a long line of North African rabbis, are thought to have been among those miracle workers.5 The Pinto Torah institutions are part of a global Jewish network led by members of the Pinto family to disseminate Torah in Israel (Ashdod and Jerusalem), France (Lyon and Paris), the United States (New York and Los Angeles), and Argentina (Buenos Aires).6 Another of their followers, Yosef, told me that "the election of Trump does not only mean that there will be Shabbat candles every Friday night at the White House, but that Moroccan mystic kabbalists will bless the White House from Ashdod every Shabbat."7
On November 6, 2016, two days before the election, Ivanka Trump and Kushner, her husband, visited the Ohel, the grave of Menachem Mendel Schneerson located in the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.8 Since the unexpected death of the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1994, his grave has been a major destination for many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who come there seeking his blessing. Ivanka Trump converted to Orthodox Judaism before her marriage to Jared Kushner, and it is widely believed that she has maintained an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle since her conversion. In this short commentary essay, I reflect on the reasons that have driven Kushner, a Modern Orthodox American Jew, to seek a blessing at the Ohel without being an openly declared follower follower of the Lubavitch movement and its mystical version of Judaism and a believer that miracles happen through prayers mediated through a rebbe. I also discuss the larger religious context that makes it possible for a modern Jewish New Yorker like Kushner to believe in modern Jewish Orthodox theology and at the same time support Jewish mystics such as David Pinto, a descendant of Rabbi Haim Pinto of Essaouira, Morocco, in return for their blessings (see figure 1).9 (I acknowledge that there is a historical tension and division among Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews about secularism and belief in amulets and the power of tzaddiks, a clash that became obvious in the context of Israeli society.) Finally, I provide a tentative [End Page 147] theoretical argument that helps us understand the comfortable attitude of Kushner and his family toward mystical folklore, folk magic, and beliefs that have long been ridiculed by Ashkenazi Jews as a phenomenon of the poor and "primitive...