There is a story some Jews delight in telling about a large cube that used to sit in Dizengoff Square in the center of Tel Aviv. It was one of those objects in a public space that served as a convenient place for people to meet. On one side of the cube was a clock. Despite the cube's status as a landmark, city officials were ultimately forced to remove it because the hands on the clock were constantly being broken -- it turns out that every Jew who arranged to meet a friend at the cube reset the clock according to his own watch.
Though it's become sort of axiomatic that Jews have great difficulty agreeing on just about anything, this contentiousness, this diversity of opinion, this absolute delight in mixing it up, was almost nowhere to be found last week when Senator Joseph Lieberman was picked to be Al Gore's running mate. The response in the Jewish community was so overwhelmingly positive, it was, as one activist I spoke to put it, "almost embarrassingly fulsome."
Emotions simply spilled out. Some people cried. Others had a hard time sleeping. They said things like, "God, I wish my parents were alive to see this day." Even secular, assimilated, successful Jews who don't usually give their religious identity much thought gushed about smashing barriers, breaking glass ceilings, and the special historic significance of the moment. The Lieberman selection seemed to tap a wellspring of emotion and Jewish pride that's been dormant for at least twenty years.
"The American notion of inclusion of all people regardless of origin has become a reality," says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. Not known for misty-eyed pronouncements, Sheinkopf, a veteran of dozens of bare-knuckle campaigns, was not alone in his sentiment. "This is a remarkable event in Jewish history," says Steven Bayme, national director for contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee.
"It's just amazing," says Rabbi Daniel Polish, director of the Reform movement's commission on social action. "On some deep level, it tells all Jews we're full citizens of this country. What a profound message. What an occasion for celebration."
"He's a shining example of the ability to live in two worlds. He's proving you can take your Jewish heritage seriously while not compromising one iota of commitment to American society."
"What a country," Jewish social activist and writer Leonard Fein kept repeating, while telling the story of a family he'd just talked to. "They're a very Jewishly involved family, and when the news hit, the elderly parents said, 'That's nice'; they thought about it mostly in political terms. Their 40-year-old son, a professor, on the other hand, said, 'I am so thrilled -- for the first time I feel really at home in America.' "
Everyone wanted to talk about it. "Did you see what they did?" asked my friend Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a Lubavitcher Hasid who's the National Guard's head chaplain for New York State. "Did you see what they did when they left the house?"
In fact, I had seen it. When Lieberman came out of his house in Washington to go to Nashville, where his historic campaign with Al Gore would begin, he paused at the threshold of the front door, touched his right hand to the mezuzah on the door frame, and then kissed it. He did this as he has probably done it every other day of his life, naturally, un-self-consciously, even though the TV cameras and a mob of reporters were there watching.
It was a wonderful moment for Goldstein, a moment that told him no matter what happens in November (Goldstein's a Republican anyway), the world will never be the same. How could it, when the Democratic candidate for vice-president of the United States stopped in full view of the cameras to perform a mundane daily Jewish ritual, a ritual whose purpose is to remind the Jew of God's presence, and, what's more, when almost no one paid it any special attention? (The mezuzah, which is supposed to mark every doorway in a Jew's home, contains a parchment scroll with the most important prayer in Judaism, the one that affirms a Jew's fundamental faith in God.)
Lieberman's ease with his religion is just part of who he is, say those who are close to him. "I've known Joe for twenty years," former New York State attorney general Bob Abrams says jubilantly. "We've traveled together, shared family occasions together. And I can tell you he's a rarity in politics. He's a genuine person. He has a core, a set of values that guide his life, and he knows who he is. He has an inner peace."
Abrams, like everyone else I talked to, was unabashed in his enthusiasm, which, while clearly heartfelt, sounded, in all its star-spangled fife-and-drum purple pomp, like the text of a Bicentennial Moment: "I cried when I watched the announcement. And let me tell you, this is going to resonate across this country with African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and all immigrants who came here looking for a better life. This is the latest chapter in the story of America, this wonderful, unique nation."
Every once in a great while an event occurs that transcends the pettiness, cynicism, and sensory overload that distorts so much of our public discourse. For the Jewish community -- and perhaps for Americans at large as well, judging by the early polls -- Gore's selection of Lieberman is one such moment. While it's not surprising that Jews would be happy about the choice, the level of emotion comes as a shock.
After all, it's not as if Jews have been forced to nibble around the edges in America. For at least a couple of decades (this time frame will probably incite the traditional verbal slugfest), Jews have had access to key positions in business and government. Louis Brandeis may have been an anomaly when he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson, but by the time Henry Kissinger was managing American foreign policy and dating starlets in the seventies, Jews were indisputably fully integrated into the American mainstream.
And if there were any lingering insecurities at all (and of course there always are; we're still talking about Jews here), the past eight years should have wiped out even those. Just think of the roster. Bob Rubin. Alan Greenspan. Sandy Berger. Dennis Ross. Stuart Eisenstadt. "What the Clinton administration did, even before Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman, is to signal the end of exclusion," says Steven Bayme. "It opened up all the doors, and you had all different kinds of Jews running through the high centers of power, from the most observant to the basically secular, Tikkun-reading liberal. Think about it -- Dan Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, is the ambassador to Egypt. Clearly, being Jewish in America is no longer a disability."