Before they cracked wise: Left to right, Michael Oren, Ehud Barak, Dick Cheney, Joseph Lieberman, Leon Panetta, Zalmay Khalilzad. (Israel Embassy/Shmulik Almany)
Last night’s to-do at the Israeli embassy honoring Joe Lieberman, who is completing 24 years representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, started off appropriately enough, with Ambassador Michael Oren likening Lieberman to his biblical namesake.
A taste of what was to come came when, while Oren was counting down both Josephs’ attributes (loyalty, independence, leadership, love of family), Ehud Barak, the departing Israeli defense minister, wondered aloud whether modern day Joseph had, like his namesake, gotten into trouble with married ladies of the court.
"We’re not going to go there," Oren said.
But really, we did. Which was kind of inevitable when you’ve got Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lieberman’s longtime traveling companion, scheduled for remarks.
McCain started with a slightly blue and very ancient joke — he felt like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s fifth husband on their wedding night: "I know what I have to do but I don’t know how to make it interesting."
He then announced that he was converting to Judaism — not because he necessarily liked the idea, but because he had become habituated to Lieberman’s Orthodoxy, so he might as well.
"I’ve had for so many years had to put up with the bullshit," he said. "I might as well convert."
He started with Shabbat elevators, whose point he never quite got: "Pushing all those buttons — and nothing!"
Then McCain got to the dining. "Why in every fucking kosher menu do we have to have salmon?" he said to peals of laughter. "I’d like to have a round of applause tonight because we don’t have salmon." (The main dish was roast beef.)
Then there were the long walks on winter Sabbaths, accompanying Lieberman home from the Senate. And that time McCain fell asleep on a plane ride. "I hear this mumbling and I look and there’s this guy wearing a shawl — I thought maybe I’d died."
McCain now knows what a tallit is and even cited two "Hebrew" words in his lexicon, "Mensch and Oy Vey."
But Lieberman, in his own speech, got in a zinger of a rejoinder: "John, your entry into the covenant was a lot less painful than mine."
Lieberman also leveled wisecracks at Dick Cheney ("There are three stages of life — youth, middle age and gee, you’re looking good") and Ehud Barak, suggesting that should the two retirees set up an internaitonal consultancy, it would be called "Barak and Lieberman (The American Lieberman)".
The most impressive part of the evening was when Lieberman and Oren went Catskills, down to the bang-bang delivery — and it was totally unrehearsed.
Oren, handing Lieberman a gift-wrapped book: "It’s a bible."
Lieberman, taking it: "I’ve already read it."
Oren: "It’s a signed copy."