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.”
But running for vice-president is different. It’s not an appointed position, and it means venturing out away from traditional Jewish strongholds, into the South and the heartland, in search of votes. To succeed in this contest requires full national approbation, coast-to-coast voter approval. And the largely unarticulated belief among many Jews is if Gore is willing to bet his shot at the presidency on America’s willingness to vote for a Jew, then there must be plenty of reason to believe it will actually happen.
“It’s certainly momentous,” says James Tisch, CEO of Loews Corporation and president of UJA in New York. “But the fact that Joe Lieberman is Jewish is not the headline. The headline is that he’s a first-rate choice because of his qualifications, because of his principles, his morals, and the kind of person he is. The second line should be ‘and by the way, he’s Jewish.’ “
Though Lieberman’s selection came as a surprise to most Americans, the senator himself was not caught completely off guard. Lieberman has been approached by various people over the past couple of years about the possibility of seeking higher office. The feelers sparked ongoing conversations with several rabbis he’s close to regarding issues that might face an Orthodox Jew in a national race.
When it was clear he was on Gore’s shortlist, Lieberman called these clergy to go over some questions the Gore people believed might come up. How can you be vice-president and observe the Sabbath? What happens if decisions must be made on Friday night or Saturday? (Jewish law states that there are greater responsibilities than Sabbath observance. Doctors face this all the time, and Lieberman has cast several votes in the Senate on the Sabbath.)
How can an Orthodox Jew be pro-choice? Isn’t this hypocritical? (Though Orthodox Jews as a group are not pro-choice, Jewish law doesn’t classify abortion as murder. And the health of the mother, both physical and psychological, is always paramount.) What about his attitude toward Jesus – particularly critical, since the reality is that 85 percent of the electorate believes he’s the son of God? (Lieberman obviously doesn’t believe this, but he does respect other people’s beliefs, and American democracy is based on a Judeo-Christian ethic. He’s also worked closely with Christian Evangelicals.)
If Lieberman doesn’t believe in intermarriage, isn’t this a form of racism? (Though he believes Jews should marry other Jews to guarantee a secure Jewish future, and that Orthodox rabbis have the right not to perform wedding ceremonies that are in conflict with their beliefs, he also recognizes he lives in a pluralistic democracy and people have the right to freedom of choice when picking a mate.)
And, on the classic question of dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel, Lieberman’s positions on the Middle East have always reflected the mainstream of American policy. (When asked about dual loyalty, Brandeis said, “Yes, I love my wife and my mother.”)
But after the softballs are dispensed with comes a more difficult series of questions. Most fundamental: Is America ready for a Jewish vice-president? Not a casual Jew, not a politician who just happens to be Jewish, but a man who is affirmatively, aggressively, and unashamedly an observant Jew. The wild card here is anti-Semitism. Not the overt, shoot-your-mouth-off-on-the-Internet crackpot kind, but the more subtle shadings. The kind of anti-Semitism that still keeps Jews out of certain country clubs and Manhattan co-ops. The kind of anti-Semitism that pollsters call hidden hate, which doesn’t show itself until someone is in the solitude of the voting booth.
The level of optimism on this front is actually very high. “Anti-Semitism never disappears from the American heart,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of America’s Reform synagogues. “Nevertheless, the Lieberman selection should be looked at as a reflection of our success and our advances, not our vulnerability.”
People eagerly point to the fact that Michigan and Minnesota both have Jewish senators and very small Jewish populations, and to Wisconsin, which actually has two Jews in the Senate: Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold. “It ain’t the South that’s gonna be the problem,” says Hank Sheinkopf. “A religious man will play in the South. They like a man of faith, even if he’s not a man of their faith. The issue will be the heartland – will they accept him in states like Ohio and Missouri?”
In fact, a much more loaded question is whether they will accept him in Great Neck and Scarsdale and Westport. Given the near-continual internecine warfare that’s gone on within the Jewish community over the past decade, it is not unreasonable to expect some dissent over Lieberman’s rapid rise to national prominence. Specifically because he is Shomer Shabbos – an observant Jew.
Lieberman generally wears his religion lightly, and it’s no small irony that his comfort with his Judaism is precisely the thing that may make other Jews uncomfortable. While a picture of him davening during the morning service at Kesher Israel in Washington, with his prayer shawl draped over his head and his phylacteries wrapped around his arm and forehead, might give non-Jews pause, it will not necessarily be greeted with great enthusiasm by the better than 90 percent of American Jews who aren’t Orthodox, either. “I’m sure there’s great discomfort today in the Establishment Jewish community,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “They’re happy he’s Jewish, but he’s not their Jew.”
A couple of years ago, I interviewed a high-level executive at one of the major Jewish organizations. We were talking about assimilation and the impact it’s had on Jewish observance and the much-lamented shrinking of America’s Jewish population.
“If what it means to maintain a Jewish life is that you have to live an insular existence and reject much of modern culture and modern values and modern scholarship …” he said sadly, his voice trailing off. “Look,” he said finally, “if the choice comes down to Borough Park or assimilation, we’re all taking assimilation.”
Lieberman, however, has taken a third path. He’s demonstrated that it’s not necessary to sacrifice a meaningful secular life in the larger culture to be observant. This is a new model in the Jewish community, which has spent decades believing that to succeed and to fit in you had to shed your cultural and religious baggage. And it’s a model guaranteed to cause renewed debate and self-examination in the Jewish community.
“He is a shining example of the ability to live in two worlds,” says AJC’s Steven Bayme. “He’s proving you can take your Jewish heritage seriously and at the same time not compromise one iota of your commitment to American society.”
Sheinkopf bristles when I ask him about the notion that Lieberman is perhaps not the candidate some Jews would have chosen. “The people who would say he’s the wrong Jew are the same people who said after the Crown Heights riots, ‘We’re Jews, but we’re not like those Jews.’ At Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given, there were no Conservative Jews, no Reform Jews, no Reconstructionist Jews, no Orthodox Jews. There were only Jews. It’s unbelievable, really. Jews are the only people who do this kind of thing.”
The hope and the belief of most people I talked to is that because Lieberman is seen as a unifying figure, a man capable of bridging the various chasms among Jews, this kind of debate will die quickly.
But it is also lost on no one that for America, or at least that part of America not especially familiar with Jews beyond Seinfeld, Lieberman will define for a long time to come what it means to be Jewish.
Given the intramural battles that have been escalating among Judaism’s various denominations, essentially the Orthodox versus everyone else, those in the Orthodox community are ecstatic about Lieberman’s newfound status. “This is a great thing for the modern Orthodox community,” says Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University. “Because after all the bad press that Orthodoxy has gotten here and elsewhere, we finally have a rational, practical, dignified, and honorable man who represents what we stand for.”
Indeed, it is hard to overestimate the joy in the Orthodox community. “I’m extremely excited about this,” says Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue, who in the past four weeks has hosted Hillary Clinton, Rick Lazio, Chuck Schumer, and Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. “Senator Lieberman’s Orthodoxy is my Orthodoxy. It’s based on inclusiveness and tolerance.”
In the end, the salient question for everyone who sees Lieberman’s candidacy as a bold stroke for American democracy – Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as Democrats and Republicans – is whether in the heat of the campaign someone will play the religion card. It is 40 years since JFK was dogged by questions about his Catholicism, and it will be interesting, if the race is tight in the fall, to see how far we’ve come. With the Internet and faxes and cell phones the critical tools of modern politics, rumor and innuendo are more dangerous weapons than ever.
“Surely some right-winger will do that,” says Sheinkopf, “but I believe the American people will respond in the way they traditionally have. They will step up, and they will do the right thing.”