YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ready for Her Role

Hadassah Lieberman says her primary duty would be to support her husband's campaign for vice president. Friends describe her as strong, elegant and self-assured.


Growing up in a small New England town, Hadassah Freilich sat attentively each Sabbath in the front pew listening as her father, the rabbi, intoned from the pulpit. The blond little girl in a hat and white gloves became accustomed from age 4 to being studied by strangers.

While she was not explicitly raised to play a supporting role--she has, after all, provided for her family, even smoked cigars in a corporate boardroom--her life has often led in that direction. Her father and first husband were rabbis. Then her college roommate fixed her up with Joseph I. Lieberman, and she married Connecticut's up-and-coming politician.

"In a way, Hadassah has long been in training to be the wife of an important man," said Edie Goldberg, who arranged the Liebermans' blind date.

Tonight, Hadassah Lieberman will ascend a grand stage to introduce her husband, a two-term U.S. senator, at the Democratic convention before he accepts the vice presidential nomination. She will effuse about the man that only she is allowed to call "'Joey."

Unlike some other political spouses, this daughter of Holocaust survivors will not have a difficult time figuring out who she is and where she fits into the drama of a national campaign or a Gore White House.

"My first role, since my husband is the candidate, is to be supportive as his spouse, and that's the first role I have now in terms of the campaign that will be rolling out over the next several weeks," she said during an interview Tuesday.

"I really see myself as an important part of the team that is not only helping the campaign," she added, "but that is helping center our relationship and our families' relationships."

Indeed, Lieberman, 52, acknowledges that she is comfortable as the No. 2 in a two-person enterprise that is a political marriage. Her friends and family say she is uniquely qualified for her mission. They describe her as a strong and elegant woman who grew up conspicuously different in a small town because of her immigrant background and strict religious life but emerged self-assured and capable. She went on to manage a professional life, a divorce and, with the senator, to blend a consummately modern his-hers-and-theirs family.

"Hadassah can fit the role of second lady just perfectly without fading too far in the background because she is so comfortable with herself," says Barbara Segiloff, a friend from New Haven, Conn. "She has all the right credentials plus the energy, the enthusiasm and just the right values."

Parts of Lieberman's life echo those of other immigrants who found refuge in this country half a century ago. Her parents, Samuel and Ella Freilich, had survived Nazi concentration and slave labor camps and then had to flee when the Communists overran Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the early 1950s.

With Hadassah, who was born in a refugee camp, the Freilichs found their way to Gardner, Mass., a chair-manufacturing town 50 miles northwest of Boston. Nuns who had sheltered the family during their escape told them to seek out Gardner, where they had a sister order. There were only a few dozen Jewish families in the blue-collar town. Before long, most of them attended Rabbi Freilich's Congregation Ohave-Shalom.

Hadassah, whose name is Hebrew for Esther, flourished there, learning to move easily between two worlds--the observant Jewish rules of her home and the more fluid American lifestyle. This quality would serve her well when she met up in her late 30s with Joe Lieberman, who was equally observant yet engaged in the secular community.

Although they were different from other Gardner residents, the Freilichs--particularly the vivacious and popular Hadassah--were never ostracized, according to Pattie Mitchell, Lieberman's best friend in high school. In part, it was because of her loveliness--she is still blond, slender and a stylish dresser.

The family's Friday night Sabbath observance did conflict with school dances and football games. So in her senior year, Hadassah's friends appealed to the principal and he promptly agreed: The 1966 Gardner High prom would be on a Saturday night.

At Boston University, Lieberman and her friends, mostly other observant Jewish women, joined the campus protests over the Vietnam War and changing social values.

The young women even staged one of their own. They brought to BU's Jewish student center Shlomo Carlbach, a hippie rabbi from Berkeley who ran "The House of Love and Prayer."

"It was typical of Hadassah to spearhead this kind of event," Goldberg said. "She was always a doer."

Lieberman, after earning a master's degree in American government and international relations, married Gordon Tucker, a brilliant rabbinical student. She worked on Wall Street to help support the family, which soon grew to include son Ethan. (She has always worked outside the home, for many years in public relations for Pfizer Inc. More recently she started the "Sister to Sister" program in Washington to raise awareness of heart disease in women.)

Three years after the marriage ended in divorce, she met Lieberman, who was also newly divorced and had two children. They were married in 1983 and had their own daughter, Hana. Initially, it was not easy to blend the families, but they worked hard and found harmony.

Hadassah Lieberman now has a clear vision of how American families, split apart by divorce, must manage. "You have to pray and have luck," she said. "We were very lucky."

She is less sure of her vision of herself as a potential second lady, what issues she'll embrace.

Lieberman's friends speculate that she will not need much help finding her way through the new political maze.

"Not for Hadassah," Segiloff said. "She speaks her mind."

Los Angeles Times Articles