The Cathartic Joy of Bernie Sanders Memes

The grumpy Jewishness of the Vermont senator at inauguration gave us exactly what we needed.

Yesterday, the entire internet decided on the day of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration that no, we’re not going to focus on Biden and Harris — we’re all going to fixate on a single picture of Senator Bernie Sanders, sitting with his arms crossed in homemade mittens, looking like the extremely grumpy old Jewish man he is.

The senator from Vermont showed up to inauguration with a manila envelope under his arm (which, reportedly, was just what his inauguration tickets came in), a coat made famous from previous Bernie memes, and a posture that seemed to convey his complete annoyance at having to be there. At this point, if you’re reading this article on the internet, I’m sure you’ve seen at least one of these Bernie memes, if not 100. But in case you haven’t, they are very, very good:

Soon, many (including us at Alma) started photoshopping Bernie into various scenes from film and TV:

And these photos, these jokes, have brought me an inordinate amount of joy.

As a writer for Alma, the Jewish culture site you’re reading, I spend too much time thinking about Jewish things. Some days, this is fun, like writing about Daveed Diggs’s song “Puppy for Hanukkah” or The Bachelor turning into a Christian dating show. But in recent months, most days have not been “fun” by any definition of the word. As the national discourse grew more and more toxic during a period of violence and unrest, my job has meant spending a lot of time writing and absorbing news about antisemitism. I’ve covered why politicians and pundits kept referencing Kristallnacht; all the hate signs on display at the Capitol insurrection; why QAnon is antisemitic; why the Proud Boys are antisemitic; all the antisemitic dogwhistles used by Donald Trumpthe list goes on. 

I know how incredibly important it is to talk about these things, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done. But there have been too many days since the start of the pandemic when I’ve logged off, walked the four steps from my desk to my couch, and laid down utterly defeated. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve felt an acute fear of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But unlike some of my friends who work in other industries, I can’t turn off that fear to focus on my job. I have to lean in. That is my job.

I also know I am not alone in struggling with my mental health, and I am beyond grateful to remain employed. But that doesn’t mean joy is easy to come by, especially with regard to my Jewishness.

Which brings me back to the joy of Bernie Sanders memes.

Sanders, the senator from Vermont, is a 79-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn who talks at a loud volume and reminds a lot of Jewish voters of their zayde, the Yiddish word for grandfather — so much so that “Zayde Bernie” became a common nickname in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

As I wrote back then, “No matter how much distance he can try to put between himself and his Jewish heritage, Sanders’ voice and mannerisms immediately reveal his identity… His Jewishness is wrapped up just as much in his inability to pronounce the letter ‘r’ as it is his time spent on a socialist kibbutz. You can’t untangle his Jewishness from his politics, no matter how much you want to call him just another old white guy.”

As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year — well, in the past four years, really — when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis. As writer Amanda Silberling tweeted, “During the Inauguration, Bernie Sanders memes offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant anti-semitism in the news cycle. In this essay I will — ” Of course it’s safe to assume she was half-joking, but yes, in this essay I will emphasize that’s exactly it: As a Jewish writer and just, like, human being, the Bernie Sanders memes were exactly what I needed, exactly when I need them.

I felt similarly when we were all joking about Doug Emhoff, the first Second Gentleman (and the first Jewish Second Gentleman), and when we came together to celebrate Jon Ossoff’s election. But those waves of Jewish jokes were contained, mainly, to the Jewish corner of Twitter, and were juxtaposed with horrific current events happening at the same time. Yesterday felt like the first good day in a long while, and Bernie was, well, everywhere. There was a Bernie joke for legitimately every single one of my interests.

There was Bernie as Tyra from America’s Next Top Model: 

Bernie attending a shiva for an enemy:

Bernie at Tanglewood, a music center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts that is a favorite of my Jewish grandparents (and many other grandparents of all backgrounds):

And some of these “jokes” even got pretty deep. In one picture, Bernie captured the exhaustion of the Trump era — and the skepticism that many still feel under a Biden presidency.

I could go on and on. Every single one made me giggle. And the Bernie memes extended well beyond people who are adept at the internet — even my dad was sending Bernie memes to the family group chat.

Bernie has certainly given many people something to feel joyful about, but what does he actually think of his meme-ification? When Gayle King asked Sanders about his inauguration look on CBS News, he replied with a chuckle, saying, “Well, you know, in Vermont, we dress warm — we know something about the cold. And we’re not so concerned about good fashion and we wanna keep warm. And that’s what I did today.”

BuzzFeed reporter Julia Reinstein tweeted “just started laughing again thinking about Bernie’s staff showing him the pic of him and trying to explain how it’s a meme now and Bernie just being like ‘what? why?'” I can hear him in that hypothetical “what? why?,” and I’m sure all the other Jews of the internet can, too. Similarly, New Statesmen editor Emily Tamkin tweeted, “I think the reason the Bernie memes are so funny to me (besides everything) is that I can think of not a single, solitary politician less likely to court being memed. He did not show up trying to get photoshopped into a Jewish deli! He just put on his warm mittens and coat, clutching the envelope in which the ticket arrived, and took his seat.”

Bernie, we’re sorry if you didn’t want to be photoshopped into a Jewish deli. But it simply had to be done — for the joy.

And I’ll certainly be very grumpy when my entire Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok feeds are no longer the grumpy Bernie meme.

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