A few days ago, Lawrence and Patty Kaplan, retirees from Massachusetts living in Jupiter in southern Florida, received an email from a grandson, Michael, in Colorado. The usual salutations were dispensed with quickly. Michael wanted to check on how the old folk were planning to vote next month. Specifically, he wanted to be sure that they weren't harbouring any thoughts of supporting John McCain.
They didn't know it, but the Kaplans had just become targets of The Great Schlep. Conceived by the founders of a political action group called The Jewish Council for Education and Research (JCER), it is a call to young Jews across America to reach out to their grandparents and erase from their minds all doubts they have about Barack Obama. (Him being black and with a funny Muslim-sounding name.) It is both a deeply serious endeavour – polls show support for the Democratic ticket among Jews, a critical constituency, remains softer than in past elections – and, in its execution, unexpectedly hilarious.
The humour comes courtesy of Sarah Silverman of Comedy Central (the cable channel that gave us The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). She has made a four-minute video that purports to help young Jews impress upon their elders why voting for Mr Obama is the right thing to do. Armed with the video, hundreds – or even thousands – of them are now meant to travel, or schlep, to wherever their grandparents live over the course of this weekend which is the three-day Columbus Day holiday. Many of those that hear the call will be coming here to Florida, a crucial swing state, where Jews, the vast majority retirees, make up 4 per cent of the electorate.
Those who can't make the trip can telephone or email. The important thing is simply to talk, says Ari Wallach, 33, who is co-executive director of the JCER and its online sister organisation, JewsVote.org. "The best way to persuade someone and to have real honest conversation is via a loved one," he explained. "And there's no one grandparents love more than their grandkids." The Silverman video has now been seen by millions and 13,000 people have signed up to a Great Schlep page on facebook.com.
Michael Kaplan probably knew he was pushing at an open door with Lawrence and Patty, for whom McCain-Palin is not an option. But he attached the Silverman video to his email anyway, in which she warns: "If Barack Obama doesn't win this election I am going to blame the Jews." She has other tips for schleppers.
"Explain to them that we're all the same inside. You know, you could compare an elderly Jewish woman like Nana to a young black man," she says. "Think about it. Tracksuits. Let's start there. They both love tracksuits. They can't get enough of them. What else? Car of choice: the Cadillac. They're both crazy about their grandkids. What else? They like things and bling and money and jewellery and stuff. They both say 'yo' all the time, or Jews go right to left –'oy.' "
Ms Silverman does irreverence well. "Yes, Barack Hussein Obama," she goes on. "It's a super fucking shitty name. But you'd think that somebody named Manischewitz Guberman might understand that."
Lawrence, sprightly at 79, is not easily offended. Sending the video to him was a smart move by Michael. "I nearly wet myself laughing," Mr Kaplan admits. "It was terribly funny."
But rather than simply share it with Patty, 75, Mr Kaplan, who once ran eight clothing shops up, set about sending messages to just about everyone he knows with the video attached. He is also worried that a great number of older Jews are indeed dithering about Mr Obama and that their reluctance could cost the Democrat the state of Florida and perhaps even the country.
It is a fear that seems to be borne out by a survey released two weeks ago by the non-partisan American Jewish Committee (AJC). It said Mr Obama had the support of 57 per cent of Jewish adults across the country. That is not bad compared to the 30 per cent backing Mr McCain. But it is a much lower margin of support than was enjoyed at this stage of the election by either John Kerry in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000.
Sitting in the living room in their second-floor apartment in Ocean Trail, a large apartment complex with foundations fairly lapped by the Atlantic, Mr Kaplan paraphrases what he told his friends in those emails after imploring them to watch the video. "If you don't understand now, God, you never will. This is about your children's lives and your grandchildren's lives." He adds with a grin: "A lot of my friends are very conservative and haven't spoken to me since."
We discuss what it is that may be depressing support for Mr Obama among their friends. "Elderly people just do get very fixed in their ways and they are petrified of change," Mr Kaplan offers. Slowly, however, he edges into the difficult territory of Mr Obama and race. "We are a funny country and we have deep-seated ideas about some things, particularly when it comes to blacks," he suggests.
Mr Kaplan is just getting into his stride when Mrs Kaplan pitches in. She is a bit more direct. "I think it's because it's very difficult for some people to picture a black person in the White House," she says. Then she goes further. "In fact, they imagine the White House filled with black people. And that's a huge thing for them."
At Kings Point, a sprawling retiree complex in Tamarac, one hour south of Jupiter, the residents are 91 per cent Jewish. Two friends, Lenore Sobel, who will say only that she is in her 80s, and Mildred Cohen, 85, are emerging from a special Yom Kippur service with their rabbi inside the complex's club house. Ms Cohen, in white from top to toe with white sunglasses to match, abruptly threatens to end her friendship with Ms Sobel upon discovering, apparently for the first time, that she may vote for McCain. (She appears to be joking.)
Ms Cohen, who is from New York and was widowed in 1995, roundly accuses Ms Sobel of being under the influence of a son of one of their neighbours whom they had recently listened to expounding the virtues of McCain. But Ms Sobel is unrepentant, saying she is worried partly about Mr Obama's politics. "I feel he is more socialistic. I am not on the right, I am in the middle. If he was just a bit more to the right maybe I would like him better. I am afraid he may make things worse." She adds that she has concerns about his Middle East policy too, particularly Iran.
Ms Cohen, who has watched all the debates, admits that, at the outset, she was not wild about either of the candidates. That doesn't mean, however, that she can stomach McCain. "I think he has starting mimicking Sarah Palin, getting all folksy. I tell you, I didn't appreciate those words he used about Mr Obama at all." (She is talking about their second debate last Tuesday when Senator McCain called his rival "that one".)
As for her extended family, she knows of one grandson "who might vote for George Bush". She means McCain. "His mother said to him, 'But you can't vote for the McCain ticket. You can't.' I think I have helped put him on the right side."
Returning to her lakeside apartment just across the road from the Clubhouse, Eunice Bernstein leaves no one in doubt where her loyalties lie. The schleppers can safely leave her in peace. As far as she is concerned, McCain is a "sleazebag" whose campaign has hit "the lowest of the low". As for Ms Palin, his running mate, "to put it gently" she says, "she is a slut".
She has something to say about George Bush too. "Frankly I am surprised he hasn't taken a bullet." But Eunice, who is 67 and works for a nearby insurance agency, also returns to the question of race when asked why some retired Jews seem to be hesitating about Obama. "I think, honestly, some of them are a little prejudiced against voting for a black. It's a shame because they will be cutting off their nose to spite their face."
Back at Ocean Trail in Jupiter, however, the Kaplans, at least, are optimistic that despite even Mr Obama's "shitty name" and his ethnic background, he will in the end prevail.
"We have these notions of black people being, you know, tough and difficult and destructive, all these things that are untrue," says Mr Kaplan. "And then along came this young man, Mr Obama, who is the very thing that we needed. I feel he is the second coming of Franklin D Roosevelt. And he is going to win. I can feel it, I can smell it, I can taste it."