Michael Granoff

A Walking Kiddush Hashem: Joe Lieberman

The first speaker at his funeral was Ned Lamont, the Governor of Connecticut.

In 2006, Lamont launched a primary challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman based mainly on the Senator’s support of America’s war to rid Iraq of its brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. That campaign can be seen as one of the first salvos in the Democratic party’s move toward the isolationist left, and nearly two decades later – even though I was just a friend and supporter who volunteered some time to Joe’s re-election –  recollections of that bruising race still haunt me. In the end, Lamont did defeat Joe in the Democratic party – but we had the last laugh as Joe became the only Senator in US history to lose his primary and prevail in the same cycle as an independent. 

Two years ago, here in Israel, I received an invitation from the US embassy to a reception with the visiting Connecticut Governor. I forwarded the invite to Joe with the caption, “Somebody didn’t do their research!”

Joe responded immediately, as he always did, with a chuckle emoji and wrote, “Give him my regards to him. We’re friendly now.” For a moment I was dumbfounded. Then it struck me – that was who Joe was. He was incapable of holding a grudge. Lamont recognized and acknowledged as much in his eulogy.

Even Joe’s successor in the Senate, Chris Murphy, whose approach to Israel in recent years has infuriated me, movingly observed that Joe taught him “to take every idea on its merits, not discount an idea because it comes from a political adversary, to not unthinkingly adopt an idea because it comes from a political friend. Joe Lieberman decided whether something was good or bad for the country or the state regardless of its political origin or impact.” On that, Murphy was spot-on.

Having the chance to know Joe Lieberman for the last three decades was one of the great blessings of my life. His daughter Hani, who lives in Jerusalem, described him at the funeral as a “Walking Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God’s name). What an understatement. I got to know him through politics in the 90s, but he soon became a close friend and a mentor in multiple dimensions. And he became one of the most important role models for me as I transitioned to a life of Jewish observance. How could I fear that such a lifestyle might be incompatible with whatever career choices I might make when here he was representing millions in the US Senate while seamlessly integrating traditional Jewish observance into his life? Perhaps more than anyone else, he gave me the confidence to pursue my own spiritual journey wholeheartedly. 

When Al Gore’s courageous move to add him to his presidential ticket in 2000 elevated him to the national stage, I palpably noticed attitudes shift among friends and family who had viewed my religious turn with skepticism. That week, on Tisha B’av, I walked into a business on which I served on the board and the African American receptionist smiled and said – “Can I get you a coff – oh no, you must be fasting today!” Seeing my incredulity she cheerfully responded, “I heard Senator Lieberman talking about it on NPR in the car this morning.”

It seemed almost too good to be true – the most famous Jew in the world was not only one who proudly lived a traditional Jewish life – but who was universally regarded as a mensch. Not to mention that he could also be hysterically funny, often in a self-deprecating way. During an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show while running for Vice President, he appeared on Conan and observed how much fun Joe seemed to be having on the campaign trail (while “Cheney looks like he got drafted”). Minutes later, Joe stood up and, with a sparkle in his eye, sang his signature song, “My Way” Sinatra style. As his daughter Becca observed at the funeral, “He was deeply grateful for the life he lived for the wonders he encountered each day for the exceptional events he experienced – he never took any of it for granted.”

From the perspective of 2024, it seems nearly impossible that these two things happened that summer. The selection of a Vice Presidential running mate is usually an opportunity for the opposition to launch political attacks. But Joe’s selection was greeted with excitement, respect, and words of deep admiration not just by his own party – but also by the opposition campaign. The second thing that seems inconceivable is that, as Joe and Hadassah wrote about in “An Amazing Adventure,” there was not a whiff of antisemitism in four months in the national spotlight. On the contrary, it tangibly seemed that Joe’s religious heritage and practice contributed positively to the ticket. It felt that way on the campaign trail, including among Christian Evangelicals and African American churches. And empirically, where Gore trailed George Bush by double digits before Joe’s selection, the ticket won the popular vote by half a million votes.  

As Rosh Hashanah grew near, it was a labor of love for me to compile around 60 High Holiday sermons from rabbis of all denominations, discussing the significance of Joe’s candidacy for Jewish life in America. I gave the collection to Hadassah and Joe just before Sukkot and they were amazed by the breadth of the nerve Joe’s candidacy had touched in the Jewish community.  My wife and I were in Nashville for that bizarre election night that November, and afterward I encouraged her, as an attorney, to join a group going to Florida in what became a month in the center of an election debacle of historic proportions. A few years ago, during the Covid lockdowns, I hosted a Zoom class on American civics for American high school students in Israel. Joe joined as a guest speaker and to introduce him I filmed a short video with the actual “butterfly ballot” machine that I have in our home in Israel.

Sadly, as Franklin Foer implies in his recent piece, “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending,” that 2000 race can almost be seen as a high-water mark in American Jewish life.

Following the 2000 campaign, the 9/11 attacks, and the war in Iraq, political polarization began an incessant rise that seems to continue to this day. That phenomenon made me even more enamored of Joe’s practical approach. When people asked me why I so much admired him, I used to respond, “I happen to believe that the climate threat and the Jihadist threat both need to be addressed. How many officials are passionate about both? Why do Democrats see the first and not the second, and Republicans vice-versa?” 

Too few people recall that in 2004 Joe ran for the Democratic nomination for President, and actually led the polls through much of the summer and fall of 2003 until his support for the war in Iraq became too big a liability for Democratic primary voters. On a frigid New Hampshire weekend before the 2004 presidential primary, we were so excited to organize the only-ever presidential campaign Shabbaton with dozens of friends, family, and supporters. Later that week I was phone-banking next to Joe’s Mom in an office in Nashua. But I could hardly keep to my task as I cracked up every time she introduced herself to a voter on the phone. “No, really! I’m Joey’s mother!”

Cake from the Presidential Shabbaton, New Hampshire, February 2004

In 2010, I had the rare privilege of giving Joe his first experience driving an electric car, as his family joined us at the Better Place visitor center in north Tel Aviv. True to form, he loved the experience and asked deep questions about the implications of vehicle electrification for the economy and geopolitics. 

Joe driving a Better Place electric car in Tel Aviv, 2010

A few years ago, when I sensed that my son, who inherited the political gene, was getting prematurely cynical about politics (pretty understandable in this era), Joe was kind enough to do a Zoom with him to give him a hopeful perspective on things. And a mere six weeks ago, when the family was in Jerusalem for their grandson’s bar mitzvah, Joe invited my son and me to visit. Joe asked interestedly about his upcoming IDF service (he is scheduled to draft two weeks from now) and responded thoughtfully to his broad questions about political philosophy and specific questions about the 2024 presidential race. It was an afternoon he and I will forever cherish. 

America owes Joe Lieberman an enormous debt for all that he did from social issues to the environment, to foreign policy, to helping establish the Department of Homeland Security and so much more.

The Jewish world owes him an even bigger debt, for being the walking Kiddush Hashem that he was.

And I owe him an incalculable debt, for being such an incredible friend and role model.

  May his memory inspire us all to live lives of meaning, purpose, and menschkeit.

About the Author
Michael Granoff is the founder of Maniv Mobility, a venture fund based in Tel Aviv that invests in advanced automotive and mobility startups globally. He has sat on more than a dozen corporate and non-profit boards, including those of Securing America’s Future Energy and Better Place. He emigrated to Israel from the New York area in 2013 with his wife and four children.