A spring-like giddiness overcame Jewish L.A. Monday morning when news broke that Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, had picked Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to be his running mate. "You're kidding, right?" was the inevitable first reaction. Could Joseph Isador Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah Freilich Lieberman, really be standing beside Al and Tipper?
Gore, a solid candidate and stolid campaigner, has broad but unenthusiastic support among local Jews (see page 14), most of whom seemed prepared to sleep through the election, rousing themselves on Nov. 7 in time to vote Democratic. The Lieberman pick changed all that, turning Campaign 2000 into an object of pride and wonder, with a dose of trepidation.
Never before had a major party nominated a Jew to the executive office. Not only that, Lieberman is, in the words of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, someone whose "core Jewish identity" is religious. "Your selection not only says something about the appeal of embracing a fuller Jewish observance," Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, wrote in a letter he fired off to Lieberman, "but also something about the United States today."
"America," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, "will never be the same."
"He will be a very positive role model in terms of our faith and our lifestyle," said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
"It says one can fully be an American and a member of a community of faith - and faith can be an asset in our public lives," said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. "I don't see any down side."
"It is true that there have been Jews who've served in high office in the U.S.," said David Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA, "but for most of these figures, their Jewishness was muted. I feel an unusual amount of pride to be American at such a moment."
Many Jews enjoyed the irony that Hadassah, the name of the senator's wife, was also the Hebrew name of Queen Esther, the only Jewish woman in the Bible to rule a non-Jewish nation.
For Jewish Republicans, many of whom, like Lieberman, are Modern Orthodox, the selection posed a welcome dilemma. "Despite strong conservative inclinations," said Dov Fischer, "I expect I'll cross over and vote Democrat in the fall. Not merely because a Jew is named, but because the party showed courageousness in the selection."
But Santa Monica corporate communications specialist Judd Magilnick said the novel ticket won't lure staunchly conservative Orthodox Jews like himself. "Despite his personal exemplary character, I think the cause he is involved in is the wrong cause," said Magilnick, a Connecticut native whose parents know the senator. "I don't want any Jewish finger-prints on the cultural and military meltdown of this country. To support him even though I disagree with him is a kind of tribalism I'm not interested in."
Beyond politics, Fischer, a former Orthodox pulpit rabbi who is now a civil litigation attorney at Akin, Gump in Century City, predicted Lieberman's Jewish practice will, in six months, provoke fierce debate in Orthodox circles. "What happens when he has to attend the funeral of a dignitary in a church?" said Fischer, citing one example of an act off-limits to the strictly observant but expected of vice presidents. "He'll be under this incredible microscope to find out what Orthodox Judaism means."
Chabad leader Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin had no such reservations. He has worked closely with Lieberman over the years, since the senator sponsored a 1992 amendment to the Freedom Support Act to retrieve Lubavitch texts from the former Soviet Union. (The amendment's co-sponsor was a senator from Tennessee named Al Gore).
Several years ago during a Moscow summit, Lieberman was surprised to find that Cunin planned to attend a meeting with Boris Yeltsin on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. Given the holy day, Lieberman chose not to go. "By you it's a mitzvah; by me it's my job," the rabbi remembers the senator saying, "and I don't work on holidays." Nevertheless, added the rabbi, never has he seen religion stand in the way of Lieberman's fulfilling his duties.
Across town from Chabad House, at Art's Deli in Studio City, debate raged over Gore's choice. "I'm thrilled about this," said hostess Caryle Bryan, who is Jewish. "I feel proud. I've heard talk that there's going to be repercussions. I would like to go in the direction of optimism, though."
"I'm not happy about this," countered Bob Bro. "Bush is so dumb, it's enough to scare you. Lieberman's a good man, but he's just like the Religious Right - but he's Jewish!"
At the University of Judaism, Professor Aryeh Cohen also worried over Lieberman's centrism on issues ranging from welfare to affirmative action. "It's another welcome indication of the degree to which American Jews have become part of the mainstream of this society," said Cohen. "At the same time, this choice is an indication of Al Gore's continued pull to the right."
But activists in the Jewish immigrant community felt Lieberman's nomination would resonate positively. Michael Weissman, an independent liberal lawyer who works with recent Russian immigrants to the United States studying to become naturalized citizens, said, "This previews the day when every immigrant's child can dream of becoming president of the United States."
An estimated 25,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have become naturalized United States citizens in Los Angeles during the past decade. Weissman predicts a "very large majority will vote for Lieberman."
Fears about an anti-Semitic backlash surfaced too, as radio talk shows and Internet chats became stalking grounds for America's hard-core haters. Talk show host Dennis Prager debated a David Duke supporter who charged that the word "goy" really means "cattle." On another call-in program, one self-proclaimed expert said Jews still engage in animal sacrifice. The Journal received several calls from readers left shaken and disturbed by what crawled from the woodwork.
The phones were also ringing at the Muslim-American Political Action Committee, where director Salaam Al-Marayati was busy providing his reaction. "American pluralism is good for American Muslims," he said, noting that Lieberman once co-sponsored a bill against anti-Muslim discrimination.
By reaching out to American Muslims and including them in a dialogue on the Mideast peace process, Lieberman can gain their confidence, said Marayati. Does this mean a Muslim vice president can be far behind? "Well," Marayati laughed, "it only took the Jews about 200 years."
Michael Aushenker, Eric Roth, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Charlotte Hildebrand Harjo and Ruth Ellenson contributed to this story.