Friday, August 25, 2000

Why Lieberman Makes Some Jews Nervous (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, August 25, 2000

A few years ago, a Jewish Museum exhibit entitled “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities” poked fun at all the things that make American Jews so insecure. There were a lot of pictures of noses in that exhibit, and the revelation that Barbie, the ultimate non-Jewish goddess, was actually invented by Jews. The sad fact is that Jews have often responded to uncomfortable stereotypes by internalizing them. That’s why the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman for the Democratic ticket is having so profound an effect on the American Jewish psyche. Instantly it has smashed the myth of “too Jewish” to bits and replaced it with a non-ethnic, value-based, positive and – heaven forbid – religious approach to being Jewish and in power that we’ve not seen on the larger political stage since, well, the original Joseph in the Bible.

Some will undoubtedly wax nostalgic for all those “too Jewish” role models of yore: the neurotic, self-effacing skeptic, the nebbish, the nerd and the non-believer, the shmoozer and the shlemiel. Lieberman is none of these. He’s the anti-Woody Allen, the UnKissinger. And that’s why, despite their immense pride in his accomplishments, many Jews feel conflicted by the seriousness with which he takes his Jewishness, while the rest of America is admiring that very thing. That Lieberman keeps kosher seems downright unkosher to those weaned on the lox and bagels of the assimilation mythos.

In his acceptance speech in Nashville, the senator invoked the name of God more times in five minutes than some rabbis do in a month. American Jews have come to expect muffled God-talk and overall blandness from their leaders, because the “too Jewish” ethos is based on the premise that everything Jewish has to be toned down, including God.

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. When Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin prayed on the White House lawn, that was OK. They’re Israelis. They’re supposed to pray. But for “too Jewish” Jews, Lieberman’s gesture might have seemed over the top. That palpable sigh of relief you might have heard came from those Jews, grateful that at least he didn’t don 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?

Face it. Joe Lieberman has blown Sandy Koufax out of the water, replacing him overnight as the prime role model for every Jewish child -- and Dodger fans aren’t the only ones a little uneasy about this.

It has become axiomatic that Jews lag far behind other faith groups in attendance at Sabbath worship. I don’t think Lieberman’s nomination will suddenly result in a mass exodus from the golf course on Saturday mornings, but the degree of discomfort will multiply each time a non-Jewish caddy comments, “Say, isn’t this your Sabbath?” When kosher meals are being rushed to every campaign stop and state dinner, that sizzling lobster on the plate will suddenly glare back at “too Jewish” Jews with stern accusatory eyes not seen since Hebrew School. Suddenly the typical American Jew will have gone from being “too Jewish” to “not Jewish enough.”

Lieberman’s brand of traditionalism is not the type one can easily dismiss as “fringe” or “fanatic.” In truth, he and his family embrace the values of the religious Jewish mainstream, including many non-Orthodox Jews who take Judaism seriously. For millions of others Jews, however, this nomination could trigger nightmares of ambivalence and self-hatred. That’s why it’s a given that some of Lieberman’s staunchest critics over the next few months will come from his co-religionists. Not that he should be beyond criticism – but I would hope that “too Jewish” Jews won’t now go witch-hunting for hints of ritual hypocrisy (the way Republicans will now scrounge for signs of moral two-facedness), as the senator makes the necessary compromises between religious observance and duty to his country.

We’ve already seen the first salvos fired in this regard, with 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. I admit to having left his Stamford rally early the previous evening, en route to my own synagogue’s Tisha B’Av observance, wondering how the senator would handle this first potential conflict between duty to party and to faith. But even had I seen him drinking, I’d never have held it up as a sign of hypocrisy, as the Drudge story seems to be implying. As a rabbi I know all too well that those who set the bar high both ritually and morally, become terribly vulnerable to such scrutiny from the real hypocrites among us.

If only all Jews could see what the rest of America already understands: We are in. Jewish chic has achieved new heights with Lieberman, but it was already prevalent in a society that had long since invited Seinfeld into its living rooms, rendered Oreos kosher – and now Twinkies too, the Barbie of snack foods – learned sex from a Shmuley Boteach, theology from Harold Kushner and investing from Alan Greenspan.

It’s time Jews got beyond all the hang-ups of “too Jewish” and “not Jewish enough.” We need new role models. In Lieberman, we’ve got one for the ages.

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