City Council Candidate Josh Zakim Has a Boston Jewish Political Dynasty in Mind

Along with a few other things.


Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

Some things are subtle. Bridges are not—especially when it comes to the campaign logo of Josh Zakim, candidate for Boston City Council. There they are, on his signs, stickers, and website, right beside his name: the soaring spire and sprawling cables of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which was named after his father, the late Boston civil rights pioneer better known as Lenny.

“I had a lot of hesitation about it,” Zakim says, sitting in his still-being-put-together campaign office in Mission Hill (the district he’s running to represent also encompasses the Back Bay and Beacon Hill). “Our graphic designer, our political people said, ‘It’s the way to go.’ I waited for the sign-off from my mother and sisters. They were fine with it. Obviously, it’s an important part of my history. It’s my father’s work.”

Lenny Zakim, who passed away from cancer in 1999, became famous for his efforts to bring different communities together as the New England director of the Anti-Defamation League. Josh Zakim, 29, was just a teen when his father died, but he remembers his work vividly.

“When I said, ‘I want to go meet Drew Bledsoe,’ my dad said, ‘Let’s go see Ted Kennedy,’” he recalls. “And seeing that, when a lot of people don’t have the highest opinion of our political leaders, that had a huge influence, showing me that was admirable and important work.”

(Zakim confirms that, one time, he did meet Drew Bledsoe as well.)

While there’s no shortage of dynastic Boston political families, they’re mostly Irish. And it’s hard to remember the last time a Jewish candidate played on a famous family name. As relatively few of Greater Boston’s Jews live within the city boundaries, the community has made its greatest impact through nonprofit work and philanthropy—the Krafts, Leventhals, and Shapiros are just a few notable benefactors, says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. Though there are a few exceptions, like state Treasurer Steve Grossman and mayoral candidate Mike Ross (who currently holds the city council seat Zakim is seeking), Sarna notes that for the most part, “Jews have not been as involved in Massachusetts politics.”

So how to explain Josh Zakim? Whereas Jews once fled Boston for the suburbs, now the reverse is happening. Zakim grew up in Newton, but has spent the past seven years living in Boston. “There has been, as in other cities, a movement back among young people,” Sarna says.

Of course, the historical migrations of Boston’s Jewish community are hardly the issue foremost on Zakim’s mind. Since attending law school at Northeastern, he’s worked at Mintz Levin and Greater Boston Legal Services, and has also helped administer the Lenny Zakim Fund. He says the most important issues to him are schools and the delivery of city services. He also faces a crowded field, with five others running for the open city council seat. The group will get narrowed down to two in the September 24 preliminary election.

At least with fundraising, Zakim’s name recognition seems to have proven helpful: By midsummer, he had raised more than $60,000, almost four times the amount of the nearest candidate with reported figures. But what about when he’s out knocking on doors? “To be honest, it’s really the beginning of the conversation,” he says.