When the Forward, a Jewish newspaper in New York, looked into a rumor last month that Virginia Sen. George Allen - whose political base sits securely in the Christian right - was descended from prominent Italian Jews, editor J.J. Goldberg said it was in many ways meant to satisfy "a curiosity."
This week, it turned into a campaign issue.
As he debated his Democratic opponent James H. Webb Jr. this week, Allen was asked whether his mother's father was Jewish. Allen lashed out. Not only was the question "not relevant," he complained that the questioner was "making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs." The next day, he confirmed that his grandfather had been Jewish but reaffirmed that "I was raised a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian."
Allen is not the first politician to learn, in a similarly public way, that he has Jewish ancestors. The others took it as an intriguing window into their pasts, a way to link previously unconnected dots. But Allen appears to be the first to have had such a visceral reaction and have it so publicly.
"John Kerry had this experience. Madeleine Albright had this experience," Goldberg said. "It becomes a national issue when the candidate has a meltdown in front of the cameras." Kerry and Albright both learned from reporters while in public office that they had Jewish ancestors.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the details of Allen's previously unknown past aren't the problem here. In 2006, he said, most voters aren't going to hold a Jewish ancestor against a candidate.
"The vast majority couldn't care less," Sabato said. "This would be a non-story had Allen not behaved the way he did."
A day after the debate, Allen's campaign complained that the question about his heritage was a hostile one, following on the heels of another that Allen felt had "impugned" his mother. "The notion peddled by the Webb campaign that I am somehow embarrassed by my heritage is equally offensive, and also absurd," read his statement.
"Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it's a fact," he continued. "We in the Allen household were simply taught that what matters is a person's character, integrity, effort, and performance - not race, gender, ethnicity or religion. And so whenever we would ask my mother through the years about our family background on her side, the answer always was, 'Who cares about that?'"
There was a time when being a Jew in American politics would have been a liability. In the years leading up to World War II, there were many who took pains to hide their religious background, changing their names, converting to Christianity, doing whatever it took to hide from anti-Semitism.
But things have changed drastically in the intervening years. A big flip in public opinion occurred from 1945 to 1955, Goldberg said, when regular Gallup polls saw the affirmative response to the question of whether Jews have "too much power" drop from 75 percent to 25 percent. Laws against religious and racial discrimination were passed. Awareness of the Holocaust increased. The state of Israel was created.
"I don't think being Jewish is anything like the negative it was a generation and more ago," said Glenn C. Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University. But, he added, "it's a mistake to believe that ethnicity and ethnic heritage are irrelevant in the minds of voters. There are still some voters who identify positively with the ethnicity of a candidate.
"I think what's happening is the negative concerns about ethnicity and race; voters now keep to themselves so we don't see it in public discourse."
He mentions the case of Harvey Gantt, an African-American politician from North Carolina, who ran two unsuccessful campaigns against Sen. Jesse Helms, who is white. Polls indicated that Gantt had much more support than he did once voters cast their secret ballots on Election Day.
He also spoke of Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's spot on the 2000 national Democratic ticket as vice president. Though he and presidential candidate Al Gore lost, they had a strong showing and no one suggested that Lieberman or his Jewish religion played any role in their defeat. It showed, instead, Altschuler said, that voters were more receptive to non-Christian candidates.
Voters are interested in the ethnicity and genealogy of candidates, which helps illuminate who they are. More than ever, it seems, voters want to discern the inner life of their politicians. They want to know about the faith and family of their elected officials. They want to be able to identify, if only in some small way, with those who represent them.
"I'm not sure that the public cares in this day and age" whether Allen's ancestors were Jewish, said Geoff Layman, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has written extensively on religion and politics. "If we do, the reason why is it provides a sense of identification with a candidate or against a candidate."
Allen has been mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2008 and was once seen as unbeatable in his Senate re-election campaign this year. But he started to look more vulnerable over the summer when he called an Indian-American staffer for the Webb campaign a "macaca," believed to be a slur for dark-skinned people. He took a long time to apologize, which might have hurt his campaign, observers said.
The son of a one-time head coach of the Washington Redskins, Allen had long been thought of as having a sunny, Reagan-esque personality. Recent weeks have done some damage to that image, Sabato said.
The recent flap over Allen's roots - which some have suggested are not actually news to the senator - isn't about his religion, said David Axelrod, a Democratic media consultant.
"It's an odd thing to have not shared with anybody all these years, and these things become windows into people's character - not the fact that he had a Jewish grandfather but the fact that it was a hidden dimension," Axelrod said. "It causes people to question why be secretive about things like that.
"Things keep happening to this guy that call his character into question. ... You never want to be there if you're a politician."