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Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Was Joe Lieberman ‘Too Jewish’ for American Jews?

The passing of Senator Joseph Lieberman reminds me that there was a time when being an observant Jew was considered a great selling point for a vice presidential or presidential candidate – except among Jews.

In 2000, Joe Lieberman blew Sandy Koufax out of the water, replacing him overnight as the prime role model for every Jewish child. But, while Lieberman’s brand of traditionalism embraced the values of the traditional Jewish mainstream, for millions of less-observant Jews there was a risk of his seeming “too Jewish.”

When Al Gore introduced Lieberman as his VP choice in Nashville, Lieberman began his speech with an English, modified version of the Shehechianu prayer, a breathtaking exclamation at the miracle of being alive and of the fulfillment of a personal journey.

It was fine for Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin to have prayed on the White House lawn. They’re Israelis. They’re supposed to pray. But for many less-observant Jews, Lieberman’s piety seemed over the top. At least he didn’t wear a yarmulke! It was one thing for Sandy Koufax not to pitch on Yom Kippur. But not to campaign on Saturday? Every Saturday? And Friday night too? What kind of meshugenah is this guy? Christians ate it up.  Jews were not amused.

Lieberman’s vice-presidential nomination did not suddenly result in a surge of synagogue attendance and a mass exodus from the golf course on Shabbat mornings, their degree of discomfort multiplied each time a non-Jewish caddy, awash in Lieberman lore, commented, “Say, isn’t this your Sabbath? That Lieberman guy walks all the way to the Capitol — and you need a golf cart just to get to the green?

There was a story in the Drudge Report that Lieberman was seen drinking following a noontime rally in very hot Atlanta on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. Many Jews were looking for similar gotcha moments. No question about it, Joe’s Orthodoxy made lots of Jews uneasy, at a moment when we should have been jubilant.

When he ran for the White House in the next election cycle, the unease did not subside.

As a long-term rabbi in Lieberman’s hometown of Stamford, I had met the senator on a number of occasions. If ever Senator Lieberman had a secure base of support, it was right here in this small-town-turned-corporate-Mecca roughly halfway between Bridgeport and Broadway.

Then, one day in June, 2003 I received a phone call inviting me to a hastily arranged meeting between Joe Lieberman and local rabbis.  He wanted some insight as to his stunning lack of support from, of all people, Jews.

While many Jews were making contributions, as evidenced by the hundreds of donations made in multiples of 18 (a Jewish lucky number denoting “life”), many more prospective donors were not. The till was surprisingly empty in Florida. In late May, the Hartford Courant ran a headline story, “Jews in No Rush to Back Lieberman,” in which Sophie Bock, a Century Villager from Pembroke Pines, was quoted as saying, “We love him. But to vote for him, that’s different.”

Was this invitation an indication that, despite the near win in 2000, despite the candidate’s respectable stature in the early polls and despite his unwavering support for Israel, Joe Lieberman had a Jewish problem, even here Stamford?

It’s not that I hadn’t heard the whispers, even among his oldest hometown friends. “How would Joe be able to negotiate with the Arabs?” “Would he bend over backwards to prove that he is not in Israel’s pocket?” “Would he bend over backwards to show that he is?” And, most tellingly, “Will Joe’s candidacy bring antisemites out of the woodwork, God forbid?”

But these were the same whispers I was hearing three years before, when Lieberman ended up only a few butterfly ballots short of the vice presidency.

“Only in America” was the recurrent theme of Lieberman’s 2000 campaign. Indeed, “Only in America,” could Jews take a moment of unabashed achievement and transform it into a touchstone for paranoia.

But what was it that Jews feared? Was it the anticipated backlash of antisemitism that many thought his candidacy would unleash? Most certainly there were elements of that fear that persisted, especially among the older segment of American Jewry. And most certainly there were many Jews who are not supporting Lieberman because he was too conservative, or too anti-Hollywood, or even because of his hawkish support for Israel. But other explanations for this phenomenon revealed much about the modern Jewish condition.

It’s not that antisemitism made Jews uncomfortable regarding Joe, it’s that Joe made Jews uncomfortable about their Judaism. For the vast majority of American Jews, Joe was “too Jewish,” that annoying goodie-goodie who, by his mere presence, reminded others of their spiritual shortcomings. Jews are especially sensitive when that holier-than-thou button is pushed, even if the perpetrator has no intention of being sanctimonious.

A Jewish president of the United States would signal the beginning of a new era, where, at least potentially, the old model of Jewish particularism would melt away. The Jew would no longer be the “other” here in America. Judaism with an American Jewish president would cease to be Judaism as we know it, the Judaism of the underdog, the outsider. How could Moses become Pharaoh and still remain Moses?

Lieberman entered the room at the Stamford Marriott at 3:47, 20 minutes after the meeting had been called, which made him precisely on time in the minds of his designated audience. It was a nice touch to begin on “Jewish time,” and there was a comfortable, familiar feel in the room when he came in – we could just as well have been in Marcia’s kitchen. I looked around and thought that if Lieberman could bring this collection of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to the same table, he could certainly handle Russia and France.

Joe shook hands with everyone around the table. When he came to me and quipped, “My mother’s favorite!” I thanked him, knowing that my own mother would be kvelling, (although she would simultaneously remind me that HE calls his mother every day).

He looked no more frazzled than I had seen him before, with that wisp of hair slightly out of place, the bottom lip turned up enough on the left side to make it seem like he’s always about to break out in a smile. He was comfortable with all people, but he seemed especially comfortable with us. I got the feeling that we weren’t just looking at a Member of the Tribe, but someone intimately familiar with the workings of our little rabbinic sub-tribe.

He opened with a brief upbeat presentation about the campaign, detailing how recent polls had placed him in the lead among Democrats and within 13 points of President Bush. He wanted to meet with us, he said, because, despite the progress he was making, he couldn’t understand why so many Jews were reluctant to come on board. “It’s not that I want Jews to vote for me because I’m Jewish,’ he pointedly said, “I just don’t want Jews to not vote for me because I’m Jewish.”

He cited the surveys that had proven to him that Americans would vote for a Jewish candidate, to a far higher degree than they were willing to consider a Catholic in 1960. He cited internal polling demonstrating that Americans firmly believe he would “do what is right for America” rather than “bend over backwards for Israel.” But for some reason, he said, Jews had been holding back. He wanted to understand why.

Obviously this was more than a campaign fundraising stop. He was here to get beyond what his staffers sarcastically call the J.Q.: the Jewish Question.

There was no shortage of suggestions from my colleagues. The usual ideas spewed forth: Jewish liberalism, an anti-Orthodox bias, and the indelible scars of history. One quoted a reluctant congregant who had quipped, “Jews are kingmakers, not kings.” Others concurred that their parishioners are nervous. One rabbi simply said, “Jews are nuts.” I began to get that queasy feeling that maybe some of those Florida retirees actually meant to vote for Buchanan.

Lieberman responded with a passion he rarely shows combined with the earnestness he always shows. “We’re not guests in this country,” he exclaimed, “We’re Americans. We have as much right to be president as anyone else. This is our home.”

Lieberman believed strongly in a Jewish mission, that Jews are to be a “light unto the nations,” but he also craved the normalization of the Jewish condition. I came out of this meeting with the impression that Joe Lieberman wanted to be president; of that there is no doubt. But the driving force behind Joe Lieberman was that he wanted to be the first Jewish president, and that it was his historic responsibility to seize this moment.

It was not to be, and a prime cause could well have been that his own people wanted their boy Joe to remain exactly where he was.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at https://rabbijoshuahammerman.substack.com/ Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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