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CAMPAIGN 2000 | PROFILE / The Vice Presidential Candidates

Moderating and Moralizing, Lieberman Toils in the Center

October 20, 2000|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Ehrenkranz was the first of many male mentors who would shape Lieberman's life. The rabbi taught young Joe to neither assimilate into the non-Jewish world nor adhere entirely to an insulated life of study and prayer. The way of the "centrist," as modern Orthodox Jews are sometimes called, was to be engaged in the world but to keep the commandments and their covenant with God at the core of everything they did.

So the rabbi taught Joe and others preparing for their bar mitzvahs to read Hebrew, but he also took them to ballgames and Broadway shows. "They had to be part of the world and use their innate qualities to improve it," he said.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Buckley background--A story Friday about Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman incorrectly characterized the ethnic and religious background of writer William F. Buckley. He is Irish Catholic.

Judaism allowed for Lieberman's ego drive but demanded that he use it and other gifts for good purpose.

He also became a student of the Talmud. While he is no scholar, he spent time every week reading the Talmudic text, in which learned rabbis examine the relationship between Jewish laws and practical situations. A central goal is finding "what differing views have in common and what unites them," Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a leading scholar, has written.

Even as a youngster, Joe took this lesson to heart. He was president of his ninth- and 10th-grade classes but in 11th grade, he made a strategic decision not to run. "He told me he wanted to be president of the senior class," said Carole Sabia, a friend. "He didn't want people to get sick of him."

He moved easily between groups. Blacks attended Stamford High. So did Italians, Jews, the Irish and members of other ethnic groups. Affability, humor and a sense of ease made Lieberman attractive--and have continued to serve him through life.

"Everybody knew him, and he knew what he wanted and how to get it," Sabia said.

Lieberman says that growing up with such a wealth of friendships has caused him to seek out people of different backgrounds. "I enjoy the diversity and find it enriching," he says.

Yale Offered Chance To Prove Himself Early

The 41 miles up the Connecticut coast to Yale University was a long distance for Lieberman. In 1960, Yale was still dominated by young men with prep school educations and Yale legacies going back generations. While Joe's parents prided themselves on paying his way through college, he was no blueblood. He was a Jew, and Yale's enrollment quotas did not allow for more than one in 10 students in each class to be Jewish.

Lieberman took pride in having earned his place at the elite school. Like his roommate, David Wyles, a tool salesman's son from Pittsburgh, he was not there because of class, entitlement or money; he was there because he deserved to be.

Students searching for an identity were impressed to meet someone who already had one. Ethnic pride would not become popular until the late 1960s, but "Joe already exuded this," classmate Gary Saxonhouse said.

Yet Lieberman managed to make his Jewishness incidental to his life at Yale. Many knew he was an observant Jew, but few noticed. The cafeteria workers gave him Kosher meals, and he often rose at dawn to pray.

"If you weren't there in his room and saw him put on the yarmulke, you wouldn't know," Wyles said. But Joe has always honored his religion, he added, offering an answer to the Lieberman question that came early in his life and would later be echoed by others.

He earned a reporter's spot on the Yale Daily News. He was neither the best writer nor the most gifted thinker. But after wooing his peers, he was elected chairman of the newspaper--the premier leadership role on campus.

"Joe's style was to listen and hear where people were coming from," Wyles said. "That didn't necessarily mean he agreed with them, even if they may have thought he did."

Lieberman's ambition and his political gift were transparent. A campus joke was that he would be the country's first Jewish president. More than 20 years later, Saxonhouse ran into another classmate's parent, Mike Wallace of CBS, and Wallace's first question was, "What ever became of that guy who was supposed to be the first Jewish president?"

The summer before his senior year, Lieberman worked in the Washington office of Democrat Abraham Ribicoff, the first Jewish U.S. senator from Connecticut. There, he fell in love with Betty Haas, a Smith College student from a wealthy Hartford family. She was outspoken like his mother, full of idealism like him, and inspired by John F. Kennedy like they all were.

During his senior year, Lieberman was tapped to join Skull and Bones, Yale's ultimate WASP secret society. He turned down the offer. "It was too old Yalie," Saxonhouse recalled Lieberman saying. Instead, he joined the Elihu Society, a more intellectual club.

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