Fear of Joseph Lieberman

Why His Candidacy Gives Some Jews Shpilkes

One needn't buy Lieberman's politics (or even his values) to rejoice at his rise. But to hear my Jewish friends, you'd think they are living in a Woody Allen movie—the one where his shiksa girlfriend's family sees him as a hairy Hasid. Maybe that scene is so funny because it corresponds to a certain truth about Jews: No matter how secure they seem, they see themselves as alien.

Most of my Jewish friends were taught by upwardly mobile parents that, in America, to fade is to survive. To vanish into whiteness—keeping your identity confined to private observances and perhaps a tasteful piece of jewelry—is to be spared the nightmare of your ancestors, which is social isolation unto death. But this fate remains embedded in the mind of every Jew, no matter how deracinated; call it a historical template. Lieberman recovers that memory. By pushing his identity, he forces Jews to confront the residue of a past that still haunts them. Projecting that inner sense of danger, they assume the worst—if not the threat of death, than the mortification of defeat. It's a plausible fear, but as long as you live by it, you'll never know when the danger is finally past.

So here's another joke. An old Jewish bubbe is sitting next to a man on a plane. "Am I thirsty!" she says over and over again, smacking her dry lips until her neighbor gets her a glass of water. He sits back and shuts his eyes, to no avail. Within a minute, the bubbe is at it again, chanting as if in prayer, "Was I thirsty!"

A joke worthy of Samuel Beckett. But consider its Jewish meaning: After so many years in the desert, you don't feel real unless your throat is parched.

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