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Jewish Journal

Dean’s Judaism Ties Span Decades

by Matthew E. Berger

January 1, 2004 | 7:00 pm

In the middle of a rowdy rendition of "I Have a Little Dreidel" at the Sobelson family Chanukah party in Concord, N.H., Howard Dean walked in and declared himself the cantor. 

The Democratic presidential candidate recited the blessings over the candles in near-perfect Hebrew in a dining room crowded with campaign staffers. 

"It's another Jewish miracle," Carol Sobelson exclaimed. 

After more songs and a reprise of the Chanukah blessings for Israeli television, Dean passed out doughnuts and cake. It was just a regular Chanukah for Dean, the former Vermont governor later said, "except there's usually only four of us, instead of 54 of us." 

Dean's most immediate connection to Judaism is his Jewish wife and the couple's two children, who identify themselves as Jews. But Dean said he has been connected to the religion for decades. Dean never considered converting to Judaism, but he said the family did ponder the prospect of joining the Reform synagogue in Burlington, Vt., though they "never got around to it."  

The candidate's ties span from a college friendship with a Zionist activist and frequent political appearances at Vermont's synagogues, to lighting the menorah and participating in other Jewish rituals at home. 

"We light the menorah. We have about three of them; we sing the prayers," Dean revealed recently as he was being driven from the Chanukah party back to his hotel. "We always like the first night the most, because we like the third prayer."

Dean asked the Sobelsons if he could chant the "Shehecheyanu," the blessing for a first-of-the-season event, even though it was the third night of Chanukah. He got permission from Rachel Sobelson, 19, his New Hampshire campaign office manager and daughter of the hosts, who said it was OK, because "it's the first night that Howard Dean is at the house." 

Dean is spending a lot of time in New Hampshire, and it's paying off. He has a healthy lead in polls the state, and political pundits have all but anointed him the favorite to win the Democratic primary campaign.

The candidate stopped by the Manchester, N.H., Jewish Federation Dec. 21 to pass out Chanukah presents for children. He brought two of his own childhood favorites -- an air hockey game and the electronic board game, Operation. 

Dean's first spiritual home was the Episcopal Church, but he became a Congregationalist after fighting with the Episcopal Church in Vermont 25 years ago over a bicycle path. Rivals say the switch signaled a cavalier approach to worship, but Dean said his move was prompted by his former church's arrogance. 

"We were trying to get the bike path built," Dean told ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "They had control of a mile and a half of railroad bed, and they decided they would pursue a property-right suit to refuse to allow the bike path to be developed."

Born Nov. 17, 1948, in East Hampton, N.Y., Dean had a prep-school education and grew up in New York City and at a country house on Long Island. His first connection with the issues and concerns of the Jewish community came when he enrolled at Yale in 1967 and became friends with David Berg, a fellow student, who was a former president of Young Judaea.

"My memory is that Howard was unusually interested, respectful and accepting of that whole part of who I was," Berg, a psychologist in New Haven, Conn., said from Burlington, where he was visiting his daughter, a staffer in the campaign, and the Deans, with whom he spent Chanukah. 

In college, Dean was unafraid to discuss Middle Eastern politics in the tumultuous period following the 1967 Six-Day War. 

"It was a prickly topic of conversation, and I confess to being prickly in conversations in that regard," Berg said. "Howard was not afraid to have those conversations, not from a critical point of view, but from a curious point of view." 

Their friendship developed over the years, and Berg counseled Dean on his interactions with the Jewish community -- for instance, when he attended the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and married a Jewish woman. Dean chose Einstein, the medical school of Yeshiva University, simply because it was the best school available to him, but the selection clearly impacted his education on Jewish issues. 

"I used to commute with a woman who was Orthodox and kept kosher, so I learned a lot about the dietary laws and more ritualistic parts of Judaism," Dean said. 

Berg said Dean felt very comfortable in the environment at Einstein. 

"I remember us sitting down and talking about kashrut at the dining hall at Einstein," he said. "He wasn't afraid of making a mistake; he wasn't treating it like going to a foreign country." 

These days, Dean slips into Jewish terminology like a set of comfortable old clothes. Before a November debate in a Des Moines, Iowa, synagogue, he circulated among congregants and chatted amiably about how hard it was for Burlington's Orthodox shul to get a minyan together until Chabad Lubavitch came to town.

When Dean began to date his future wife, Judith Steinberg, a fellow student at Einstein, Berg broached the issue of intermarriage. 

"I had slightly mixed feelings about it from the Jewish side," Berg said. "There was some of my mother in me saying, 'This is a Jewish person marrying a non-Jewish person.'" But, he said, "I got over that quickly."

Dean's family had little problem with the fact that he was marrying a Jewish woman, the candidate said. 

"I think the reason it wasn't an issue in my family was because my father was a Protestant and my mother was a Catholic, and when they got married, that was a very big deal," Dean said. "My father, I think, was determined not to put me through the experiences he went through when he married outside his faith." 

Dean's mother bonded with his future wife over a shared love of The New York Times Book Review, which no one else in the Dean family read. However, while the Deans welcomed Steinberg, "there were a few insensitivities," the candidate said. The first time Dean brought his future bride home for Christmas in East Hampton, Dean's uncle served ham. Steinberg doesn't keep kosher, but Dean still found it inappropriate. 

And there was some frustration in the Steinberg household that Judith was marrying a Christian.

"It was a little bit of an issue for Judy's grandmother, because she was of the old school," Dean said. "But she loved me, and I loved her." 

Steinberg's grandmother would tell Dean stories about escaping pogroms in Poland and coming to the United States by herself at age 17. 

"We were very close, even though she would have been happier if I were Jewish," Dean said. 

Steinberg's parents were less concerned.  Steinberg, who Dean said is "not political at all," has given few interviews and does not campaign with her husband. The campaign did not make her available for comment, but her spokeswoman, Susan Allen, has said that Steinberg views time spent with reporters as time taken away from her patients. 

The Deans soon settled in Vermont, where they began a medical practice and a family. The couple has two children: Annie, who is studying at Yale, and Paul, who is a senior in high school. 

"From early on, he was committed to them both to giving them some Jewish education," Berg said, noting that Dean would take the children to synagogue. Neither child had a bar or bat mitzvah or much formal Jewish education. Dean has said he allowed both children to choose their religion, and both now identify as Jewish. 

The family celebrates Passover and the High Holidays at home. Many in Vermont's Jewish community tell of how Dean skipped an appearance with Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s to travel to New York to be at a Passover seder with his family. 

"It is a household in which their Jewish heritage was never denied or soft-pedaled," Berg said. But Berg also acknowledged that the Deans don't practice Judaism as he would define it. 

"Religion was never a central feature of their family life," he said. 

Rabbi David Glazier, who leads Burlington's Reform synagogue, Temple Sinai, said he is not really sure what the family's religious practices are. A Congregationalist in a family where everyone else sees themselves as Jewish is hard to define, he said. 

"The paradox is between himself and what the Jewish community is," he said. 

Glazier first met Dean briefly when the rabbi was asked to give an invocation in the state Senate, and Dean, then the lieutenant governor, was presiding.  Dean was thrust into the governor's office in 1991 with the sudden death of Gov. Richard Snelling. Glazier's synagogue invited Dean to speak one Friday night to express its appreciation for the smooth transition. 

By that time, Dean had become a full-time politician, forced to give up completely the family medical practice that he had scaled down after being elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1982 and after becoming lieutenant governor in 1986. 

When he attended political events at the synagogue, Dean would remark that he felt very comfortable, Glazier said, and once said he would like to join the temple. Dean said he left the decision about joining the temple to his wife, and that the family did not get around to affiliating. Berg suggested that as a mixed-faith family, the Deans were not made to feel particularly welcome at the synagogue. 

Glazier said that about half the members of his congregation were not born Jewish, and that his synagogue does extensive outreach to interfaith couples.

"How much more welcoming can we be?" he asked, concerned that Dean's campaign was bad-mouthing his congregation to justify the candidate's lack of public displays of faith. Glazier said he tried not to ask Dean about his family's religious practices or encourage them to join the synagogue.  Glazier said Steinberg occasionally comes to the synagogue to pick up "ritual things she needs."

Glazier also has tried to get Dean to participate more in the Jewish world, offering him a Hebrew Bible to use at his gubernatorial swearing-in. But Glazier, one of three religious leaders who gave prayers at Dean's gubernatorial inaugurations, said he hadn't seen Dean use it. 

"I think he wants to do right," Glazier said of Dean. "I think he wants to find a spiritual home but not disturb the context of his home." 

Dean said he doesn't see much difference between his family's beliefs and his own. 

"I have a pretty ecumenical approach to religion," Dean said. "There is a Judeo-Christian tradition and there are different doctrinal aspects and different beliefs, but the fundamental moral principles are very similar between Judaism and Christianity." 

He does, however, wish his children knew more about Christianity, having experienced it little beyond Christmases at the home of Dean's parents in New York. Dean, himself, said he does not attend church often but prays every day.  

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