There’s this joke about a Jewish boy and his grandfather, whose favorite game is naming the most unlikely Jews. On his deathbed, the old man strains to hear his grandson’s parting words. “Zayde,” says the child. “Leslie Howard!”
“Leslie Howard?” the zayde rasps. “I die a happy man.”
In order to get this joke, you have to know that Leslie Howard played a dreamy blond Confederate in Gone With the Wind, the ultimate Gentile epic. And you have to understand the outsize Jewish pride at any member of the tribe who makes it big in an area where he’s not supposed to excel. Generations of kids like me grew up with the names of Jewish athletes on their parents’ lips—remember Sandy Koufax? But nothing beats the movie star who combines a goyisher punim and a yiddisher kup—a Gentile face with a Jewish awareness. Here, pride is commingled with self-preservation, and the double edge of the zayde‘s game cuts like a knife.
Funny, Leslie Howard doesn’t look Jewish. But Joseph Lieberman does, and he’s pushy about it, even daring to use the ch-word (as in “chutzpah”) during his thank-you speech. This insistent display is why, instead of kvelling, most of my Jewish friends are crying, “Oy, vey!” I suspect that, in Jewish communities all across the country, there’s a secret uneasiness about Lieberman. Many assimilated Jews, I suspect, fear the worst. They’re convinced that “the Gentile masses,” as one friend put it in a despairing e-mail, will never vote for a Jew—especially with a wife named Hadassah. (Couldn’t she have changed her name to Holly?) They foresee one of the greatest defeats in American history, with Gore winning Borough Park and Fairfax Avenue while Bush takes the rest. Never mind the euphemistic references to this “bold move.” A kosher kitchen in the executive mansion? Please!
What’s weird about this trepidation is how archaic it seems next to the spectacle of Lieberman playing his faith to the haimish hilt. You need only see the painful wriggling of the right-wing New York Post to grasp the political value of his candidacy. Not only will he mobilize Jewish voters—who are concentrated in high-profile states, including swing ones like New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois—he’s almost certain to bring a much needed bump for Hillary Clinton. His presence by her side, as a friend of 30 years, ought to take the righteousness out of boychicks who are basically for Rick Lazio because they want to keep the big bitch down.
But the real story is the impact of Lieberman on Christian voters. I think he will be a hit with churched people of every political persuasion. His candidacy comes at a time when fundamentalist rhetoric about Jews has undergone a seismic shift. I had an eerie glimpse of this change while visiting my parents recently. They live in a part of Florida where knishes are as scarce as blizzards, so I was startled to find an infomercial on the local religious channel about sending care packages to elderly Russian Jews who had lost their pensions in the post-Soviet chaos. The ad was replete with klezmer music, so I figured it had been placed by a Jewish charity. But there was Jerry Falwell talking above the clarinets, urging Christians to earn their grace by feeding hungry Jews.
Most of my friends think this is window dressing on a history of pogroms and worse, one that lingers in the Christian imagination. And who can blame them? Lieberman’s ascension is no more proof that Jew hating has run its course than that Disraeli or Mendès-France—to mention two Jewish leaders of Western nations—signaled the end of anti-Semitism in their time. But it’s clear from watching the media’s response to Lieberman’s candidacy that it resonates with the political moment in all sorts of powerful ways. He’s the Mensch from Hope, with a wife whose parents survived the Holocaust, no less. Here is one narrative that’s likely to last past Labor Day.
This is not to deny the response of shock jocks who know just how to cut a joke on the bias. All week, talk radio was up to its pupik in anti-Semitic code, and the venomous look on Bill Maher’s face as he swung into his Jewish jokes gave true meaning to the term “politically incorrect.” The New York Times reported a flame-up of Lieberman slurs on the Internet, no surprise in a medium that’s tailor-made for sado-geeks who hide behind their screen names. But my guess is that for every bigot there’s a pious Christian—maybe even a minyan of them—moved by the image of an observant Jew on the campaign trail.
In the course of addressing questions that are sure to arise around his faith, Lieberman will give many Americans a crash course in the nuances of Jewish sensibility. If he dares to follow his best instincts, we will see him reconciling Torah law with support for choice and gay rights, bringing a new faith-based progressivism to these issues. In the process of explaining himself, he will evoke the ethical core of Judaism, revealing its propinquity to Christianity, which anti-Semitism has always masked. His presence may not rescue Gore, but as recent polls showing the race tightening suggest, it doesn’t hurt to have a rebbe on a weak ticket.
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.