For a few strained hours last week, I was afraid we'd be witnessing the Jewish version of Elian Gonzalez, Part II. Could Jewish blood pressure withstand the tension of the Palm Beach vote taken hostage?
As hours of electoral anxiety passed into weeks, I worried that the world would soon know how the Chosen People behave when the food comes late, let alone when an election result is held up. I feared that Fox News would send Joan Rivers to cover the re-vote protest, that Saturday Night Live would point out the ironic casting of Jesse Jackson as Moses. Frankly, I was ready to die of embarrassment.
Yes, my own mother was temporarily unhinged by the thought that her absentee ballot might have been thrown away like a receipt from Bloomingdales. But soon, like the rest of us, she simmered down.
"I don't trust any of them anyway," my father said. That's when I knew the nation was going to be all right. My father makes his political pronouncement every four years, as the Republic is transferred to the next generation of scoundrels. It's a tradition, like the losing candidate's concession speech. It assures me that, in our family, healthy cynicism has been restored and everyone is once again well behaved.
And decorum was very much the issue last week: how to behave when the eyes of the planet are upon you. The Election 2000 Cliffhanger has been a national civics lesson, but for Jews it is something else, like taking off control-top pantyhose and letting yourself breathe naturally. Regardless of who ultimately "wins," (would you want such a blessing?) it has taught American Jews, as well, that all the world really is just one big condo project, and that we feel right at home.
Joe Lieberman is one part of the comfort factor, but only one. The affable, Torah-quoting son of a bakery truck driver himself has been a tonic. The first Jewish vice-presidential candidate brought Orthodox Jews back into the Democratic column. He gave young activist Jews a place for their political hopes. Prof. Kenneth Wald, head of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida, tells me that the AIPAC offices were raided of eager staffers, gone to Gore-Lieberman.
But Lieberman is a career politician, concerned with far more than proving that there is no secret obsessive anti-Semitism lurking in the hearts of mainstream America.
Through his relentless day-after-day campaigning along the Condo Coast, he put the Sunshine State, whose governor, after all, is the GOP candidate's brother, into play. In doing so, he set up the Jewish vote for what it has traditionally hated the most: attention to itself as a political force.
Over many years, I've seen this parochial fear of public disclosure in action. In every election cycle, a candidate or a race emerges in which Jewish votes are regarded as "swing." In Los Angeles almost eight years ago, for example, 50 percent of Jewish voters punched out the chad for Republican Mayor Richard Riordan (as had an equal number of Jews in New York supported Mayor Rudolph Guiliani).
Like the "Seinfeld" episode in which Jerry gives his father a Cadillac, we like being close to power, but we don't want anyone to see us pulling into the driveway.
Underlying this reluctance to get too comfortable is the lingering conviction that we will somehow handle power wrong. For all our pride at Jewish involvement in American civic and economic life, many feared that if Gore-Lieberman won, the Jews would be blamed for any Wall Street reversals.
That's why the events of last week provided real threshold tests of our civic engagement tolerance.First came the newspaper stories asserting the undeniable: Jewish votes for Pat Buchanan provided conclusive evidence that the butterfly ballot did not fly. Then came the political analysis showing that Broward and Palm Beach Counties were heavily weighted with Jewish Democrats; the fate of the nation rested on residents who moved South but vote North.
Finally, there were the votes of Aliyah Americans, the Jews of Haifa and Tel Aviv, giddily hoping to repay Bill Clinton's pro-Israel foreign policy with a vote for Al Gore. Florida Jews kicked off their shoes and settled in for the long American vote count.
It feels good.
American Jewish commitment to the political system is intense, loyal and strong. Our love of democracy verges on religious devotion, extending even to the archaic punch card ballot and the Electoral College. From Florida this week, my friends sent e-mail assertions that they personally would volunteer to oversee the presidential recount. Whatever it took, they were there. Just two weeks ago it was clear to me that Jews were no longer a swing vote, that our place had been taken by Latinos, Asians and, yes, Arab Americans.
Shows how much I know.
The fact is, the whole nation is swinging. But we can still carry the tune.