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Senator's Life Took Same Path as His Faith

Profile: Lieberman's rise encapsulates the change in circumstance of American Jews in the last 50 years.


When Joseph I. Lieberman was born in 1942, American Jews still could not buy property in many places in the United States. When he was growing up in the more sophisticated parts of Connecticut, Jewish businessmen still couldn't borrow money locally and had to drive into New York City to find friendly bankers. When Lieberman arrived at Yale in the early 1960s, the university still limited the number of Jewish students it accepted.

On Tuesday, Lieberman stood next to Al Gore on a sweltering Tennessee afternoon to be formally announced as the Democratic candidate for vice president.

The arc of Joseph Isador Lieberman's life neatly encapsulates the remarkable change in circumstance of American Jews over the last half-century--a rise to prominence, prosperity and acceptance in a non-Jewish society that is unlike anything in Jewish history.

"This is not a breakthrough, rather it's a culmination in a long process of integration," said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 10, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Vice presidential candidate--A story in Wednesday's paper misspelled Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's middle name. It is Isadore.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lieberman's rise, however, is that he was chosen not despite his faith, but because of it. And the open piety that made him attractive to Gore will likely discomfit many Jews even as it may prove a plus with some Christians, said experts in both politics and American Judaism.

Indeed, in the divided Jewish world, Lieberman's blending of strict observance of religious law with full engagement in modern society can make both traditionalists and secularists uneasy.

It was Lieberman's no-apologies assertion of moral values that attracted Gore to him. Lieberman displayed those values Tuesday in a speech that cited God almost a dozen times in language more devout than any similarly prominent Christian political figure--and certainly any Democrat--had used in recent memory.

Surprises Seen on His Acceptance

That is a dramatic contrast with the path that most American Jews have taken to ascend in American society: to get ahead by moving away.

"What will probably surprise a lot of people during this election is the degree to which Lieberman's very obvious religious observance will be admired by a lot of non-Jews and be unsettling to his own kind," said Samuel G. Freedman, a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism and author of a new book on American Jews.

Many secular Jews are likely to be queasy about Lieberman's easy use of religious language, such as his extensive quotation in Tuesday's speech from the Old Testament Book of Chronicles. A similar statement from a Christian politician might easily have drawn complaints about the separation of church and state, noted some liberal Jews.

"In Tennessee, they know Chronicles. In New York, I'm not so sure," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, who said he was not uncomfortable with the speech.

At the same time, many ultra-Orthodox Jews, who believe in distancing themselves as much as possible from secular society, will continue to take issue with Lieberman, saying he risks his moral purity by throwing himself into the caldron of American political life, said Freedman.

In recent years, more traditional Orthodox leaders have sometimes harshly criticized the type of "modern Orthodoxy" that Lieberman practices. That type of Orthodoxy allows people to be too enmeshed with the larger world, they assert.

By contrast, throughout his political life, Lieberman has encountered many non-Jews who are taken with him for his religious fervor, said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is also Jewish, although not as religiously observant as Lieberman.

"Joe and I have talked about this," Levin said. "He makes people comfortable that he's an American who is Jewish and Orthodox.

"There is no awkwardness about Joe," Levin said. "He is comfortable with who he is and makes everyone else comfortable."

The quick flood of anti-Semitic hate messages popping up on Internet message boards, discussion groups and e-mail lists Tuesday did not contradict that, said political experts.

"The anti-Semites are out there, but they wouldn't have voted for Gore anyway," said Artson, who once served as a legislative aide to Willie Brown in the California Assembly. "That was part of the calculation."

Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, expressed a similar lack of concern that Lieberman's candidacy would generate widespread anti-Semitism.

"It's going to cause some problems up at Bob Jones [University]. They don't like Catholics or Jews. Elsewhere I don't think it's going to be a problem," said Harpootlian. "Moderate and middle-of-the-road South Carolinians and Southerners will support someone of the Jewish faith.

"It will be an obstacle," he added, "with some of small minds, but not others."

Surveys have shown that Jews themselves are far more likely than non-Jews to believe that anti-Semitism remains a serious obstacle to achievement in American society.

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