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Lieberman low-key on Judaism


Sen. Joseph Lieberman speaks at a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H., Nov. 10. (Lieberman for President campaign)

Sen. Joseph Lieberman speaks at a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H., Nov. 10. (Lieberman for President campaign)

CONCORD, N.H., Nov. 25 (JTA) — When Joseph Lieberman was 10 years old, bouncing a basketball through the house, the family rabbi told his mother, “He will never amount to anything.” “I laughed at him,” Marcia Lieberman recalls. “What would you say to your rabbi who said that?” On the day Sen. Joseph Lieberman officially submitted his name for the Democratic primary ballot in New Hampshire, his 89-year-old mother was the center of attention, holding court across the street at a small pub and telling stories that would make any son blush. The presence of a stereotypical Jewish mother on the campaign trail is perhaps the most Jewish aspect of a campaign that is trying to downplay the candidate’s religion. Lieberman’s Jewishness has made headlines since he was selected as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket in 2000, and now that Lieberman is running for the top job himself, defining the role his heritage plays has become a challenge for the candidate. “I’m running for president as an American who happens to be Jewish, not the other way around,” Lieberman says, talking with JTA as he is driven from Concord to Manchester for a house party. “I’m proud of my heritage, but I am absolutely confident that the American people are ready to choose whoever they think is the best candidate for president, regardless of religion, nationality, race, gender, etc.” The candidate grows visibly upset as he is peppered with questions about his religion and its impact on his campaign, and he jokingly threatens to strangle the interviewer if the topic doesn’t change. The frustration is understandable. Lieberman’s campaign is, after all, about a lot more than being Jewish. A car in his motorcade bears a Jesus fish just below a sticker saying “Joe Lieberman 2004.” And pepperoni pizza will be served that evening at the home of a Greek American state representative who has endorsed Lieberman. But in many ways, it is Lieberman’s Judaism — or, more specifically, his devout beliefs and actions — that has helped the senator emerge as more than just than one of the 100 men and women in the Senate, positioning him for his current bid for the White House. Lieberman’s refusal to drive on Shabbat led Gore, then a senator, to offer a bedroom in his Capitol Hill home to Lieberman for Friday nights and weekends when the Senate was in session, sparking a friendship partly responsible for Lieberman’s selection as Gore’s running mate in 2000. And it was his faith, and the milestone of becoming the first Jew on a national party ticket, that helped give him celebrity status on the campaign trail in 2000, winning him a following that no unsuccessful vice presidential candidate has gotten since Geraldine Ferraro broke the gender barrier in 1984. Lieberman’s faith has also gotten him into some trouble. Some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, publicly rebuked Lieberman’s talk of his faith on the campaign trail. Lieberman’s complaints about violence in the media, in which he joined with former Education Secretary William Bennett, cost him support and fund-raising dollars in Hollywood. Lieberman makes no apologies for who he is, and he notes that the last two Democrats to win the presidency — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — were men who felt comfortable speaking of their faith in a broad, inclusive way. And when it is advantageous, Lieberman wears his religion on his sleeve. Appearing last month at a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., synagogue located in senior citizen’s center, Lieberman spoke Yiddish and accepted a lulav for Sukkot. But he remains defiant that he is not the “Jewish candidate” — even if his Concord office is on top of a bagel shop — and that religion will not be a factor in the voting booth. Lieberman says he is disappointed that more Jews are not supporting his candidacy, the way other minority groups have rallied around their candidates in the past. But he says he knows that the American Jewish community is diverse. “If somebody in the Jewish community thinks that one of the other Democratic candidates will make a better president than I, or that George Bush will make a better president than I, then they should, notwithstanding the fact that I am Jewish, support those other candidates,” he says. “But what I have said is: Don’t not support me because I’m Jewish, because that is anti-Semitism.” Lieberman says his sluggish showing in the New Hampshire polls — the latest American Research Group survey has him running a distant fourth with 5 percent of the vote — is irrelevant, because other polls show him having one of the best chances at beating President Bush in the general election. And he is expending a lot of time and energy in New Hampshire, bypassing the Iowa caucus, hoping to succeed in the first state primary on Jan. 27. Outside analysts say that Lieberman’s religion probably isn’t that big a factor in this race, and that his poor showing is based more significantly on his conservatism relative to the other candidates. “It’s not that I don’t think there are bigots anywhere in America, its just that I know we’re in a country that is so pervasively accepting and tolerant, that they don’t speak out publicly very much,” Lieberman says. “I remain totally confident that America is ready to vote for a Jewish candidate for president if they think he or she is best suited to be the president they need.” Joseph Isadore Lieberman was born on Feb. 24, 1942, in Stamford, Conn., and grew up in one of the most religiously observant Jewish families in the area. One of his mother’s earliest memories of Joe is tying her 2-year-old to a banister outside of the house so he could play outside without supervision. “Now I would be called an abusive mother,” she says. The fact that the Liebermans did things differently — keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath in a community with few observant Jews — taught Joe discipline, his mother says. “Now she tells me,” Lieberman says when told of his mother’s analysis. “Well, she’s probably right. There’s no question that a part of what shaped me is that I grew up in a largely non-Jewish community in which I was religiously observant.” “There are certain things you miss on Friday night or Saturday but you do it for a reason,” he says. On the campaign trail, too, Lieberman has missed some political events because of his religious observance. And one Democratic presidential debate in Arizona was rescheduled because it conflicted with Sukkot and Lieberman could not otherwise attend. Through his career, Lieberman has learned to walk the line between religious observance and public life. The first two times he was nominated for the Senate by the Democratic Party in Connecticut, it was done on a Friday night. Lieberman accepted the nomination by videotape. “The Democrats in Connecticut understood what was going on,” says Bill Andresen, who spent 10 years as Lieberman’s chief of staff on Capital Hill. And most people in Washington know it now as well. Lieberman says he will vote in the Senate and fulfill his job requirements on the Sabbath, but he will not campaign or raise funds. He says he welcomes the question of what he would do as president on the Sabbath, understanding it is important that voters know he will take calls from heads of state and military leaders as the nation’s chief executive. Lieberman’s high school yearbook reads like an overachiever’s dream. He was not only class president and the most popular kid at school, but he also created a summer school after he graduated so that some of his classmates who had missed credits could get a diploma. Lieberman talked his friends into becoming tutors. The same rabbi that said he wouldn’t amount to anything at the age of 10 tried, when Lieberman was 14, to convince the young man to become a rabbi. “He had all the elements that would make him a good community leader,” said Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, now executive director at the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. “The fact that he took that higher, to the Senate, only concludes in my mind that I was right.” “He never said ‘No,’ he said, ‘Let’s see what develops when I go to school,’ ” Ehrenkranz recalls. “But I saw where he was going and that he was interested in law and politics, and that was OK.” Lieberman felt he could fulfill his religious mission better on a soapbox rather than a synagogue bimah, his friends and family say. As Ehrenkranz explains it, Lieberman understood that the Ten Commandments had two sides, one dedicated to serving God, the other to the betterment of man. Lieberman concurs. “There’s no question that one of the motivating factors was my religious upbringing and the basic understanding that my life was a gift from God and I had a responsibility to give back by — stated in its simplest form — doing tikkun olam, by working to improve the world,” he says. The Washington bug first bit him in 1963, he says, when he interned for a man very much like himself, Abraham Ribicoff, a Jew from Connecticut who became governor in 1955 and won a Senate seat in 1962. “There’s no question that that experience had a real effect on me,” Lieberman says of his summer in Washington, in which he heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech. He later brought students from his Yale University class to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote. Lieberman says of Ribicoff, “He stood for independence, integrity. He got things done within Washington.” He adds, “It’s funny as I say these words how much I hope they’re words that people identify with me today.” Ribicoff was a guide for Lieberman not just on how to be a Jew in the Senate, but that one could get to the Senate as a Jew. “He learned you could be a Jew and you could serve,” Ehrenkranz says. “He saw that our own electorate would discard beliefs of a person and turn to the best man.” Armed with that understanding, Lieberman ran for and was elected to the Connecticut Senate, where he rose to majority leader. After a failed run for Congress and a divorce from his first wife, Betty Haas, Lieberman became the state’s attorney general. He now says that in this age of terrorism, “America needs a president that has a bit of attorney general in him.” His presidential campaign has earned endorsements from four current state attorneys general, in Colorado, Oklahoma, Iowa and Connecticut. In 1988, Lieberman defeated incumbent Lowell Weicker and won a seat in the Senate. There, Lieberman quickly developed a reputation as a freethinker, one who could easily cross party lines. He also quickly became known as the observant Jew in the chamber. “The life we chose to live is hard, but his is harder,” said Michael Lewan, Lieberman’s first chief of staff. “He never made it an issue.” Lieberman quietly ate salad or fish in the Senate dining room and at hundreds of dinners and receptions as other lawmakers dined on chicken or steak. Gore would refer to himself as Lieberman’s “Shabbes goy,” Andresen said. And when it came to policy positions, Lieberman consulted Connecticut voters, not rabbis or Jewish law. “I don’t go to the rabbi for guidance as to how to vote,” he says. “But it’s the sense of justice and responsibility, that we’re taught we have to pursue justice, to pursue mercy and righteousness. It’s all part of me and I’m sure part of the decisions I make.” The decisions he has made throughout his public life place him on the conservative side of the 2004 Democratic primary field. At a recent AARP forum in New Hampshire, five of the six candidates bashed the new Republican prescription drug plan and the forum’s host for supporting it. Only Lieberman took a more nuanced approach, saying he needed to see whether the bill was more of a positive or negative before making a decision on it. A week later, he chose to join the other candidates in opposing it. But if his policies didn’t win him support in the senior citizen circuit, at least his mother did. The senator introduced her at the beginning of the debate and referenced her often, a standard element of his stump speech. Even the other candidates there made note of her impact. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) told the AARP audience that Mrs. Lieberman had endorsed his own health care plan. By the end of the day, the Lieberman campaign had published a statement by Mrs. Lieberman. Edwards is “a nice looking boy,” Mrs. Lieberman said, but Joe’s health plan was best.