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Lieberman's speech marks turning point

While many Jewish voters tend to vote for Democrats, his selection has energized this group.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- Each of us remembers what we were doing at certain moments in history that were important to us. Aaron Shelden, 69, a Democrat and a Jew, still nurtures his recollections of the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and the day Jewish Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg was traded by Detroit.

So there is no doubt Shelden will long remember how he was driving to a cardiac rehab appointment recently when he heard on the radio that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Jewish man, had been chosen as the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

"I never thought in my lifetime I would see a Jewish vice president," Shelden marveled over a post-tennis game breakfast at Mel's Place in West Hollywood last Sunday. "Never."

Perhaps it seems obvious that Shelden, like so many other Jews who live here in the capital of the entertainment industry, would be overjoyed by Lieberman's historic step. Their delight will be on display tonight when Lieberman accepts the nomination in a speech to the Democratic National Convention.

But Shelden notes this euphoria represents a turning point in itself -- an end to the prevailing tendency among prominent Jews to mask their religious heritage for fear of stirring up anti-Semitism.

"Hollywood was started by Jewish guys who wanted to get away from their Jewishness," Shelden said. "The older Jewish people say, "We don't want to make too much noise -- something could go wrong.' "

Rabbi Bradley S. Artson, dean of rabbinic studies at the University of Judaism, agrees with Shelden that the days of keeping a low profile are passing, and he sees Lieberman's openness about his religious practices as evidence of that change.

"We have turned a corner and we no longer have to leave a piece of us outside of the public view," Artson said. "There is a level of acceptance now -- we're home. Each time another minority group comes inside, we come closer to fulfilling the American promise and the Biblical promise."

Of course, even without Lieberman on the ticket, many members of the Jewish community on Los Angeles' West Side were likely to vote Democratic. In fact, these are widely known to be among the most generous zip codes in the nation when it comes to making contributions to the Democratic Party.

Still, it would be hard to exaggerate how the decision energized these traditional Democrats. Former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine, now a lawyer in private practice, says he was attending a luncheon of Jewish leaders in Beverly Hills when the news was announced. "I've seldom ever seen such enthusiasm as I saw there," Levine said.

Even entertainment industry moguls such as Norm Pattiz, chairman of West-wood One, a radio conglomerate, was pleased -- despite Lieberman's reputation as an outspoken critic of sex and violence in the popular media. "I don't even know the guy and I'm kind of loving him to death right now," Pattiz said.

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, who presides at the 8,000 member Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said entertainment executives are not particularly upset by Lieberman's criticism of their industry because they know he does not favor censorship.

"Sen. Lieberman has tried to give them a moral lesson, but that is not censorship," Fields said.

What made the choice even more surprising to them is that Lieberman is an observant Jew. That is, he abides by the laws that restrict what Jews do between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

Fields said many of the members of his synagogue were surprised because they assumed that the first Jew nominated for national office would be someone more assimilated into the secular society.

Although many Jews admire Lieberman's devotion to Jewish law, some have criticized him on that basis too. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who represents the congressional district where Shelden lives, said some Jews are confused by Lieberman's decision to bend those rules under certain circumstances.

"Some secular Jews are learning for the first time what it means to be observant, and that it is not as strict as they thought," Waxman said. "I've heard people ask, "Why doesn't he wear a yarmulke?' Or they were shocked that he and his wife held hands in public."

Both Fields and Artson said they expect Lieberman will occasionally be criticized or second-guessed for the way he carries out his religious practices.

"There are still a few Jews who are afraid of their shadow -- even here in the United States," Fields said.

In truth, Artson said, the choice of Lieberman has caused many Jews to confront a sort of latent self-loathing.

"I thought I had dealt with my own internal anti-Semitism," the rabbi confided. "But when I read the list of candidates for vice president, I read right over Lieberman's name. I ruled him out because he is a Jew. Then when he got it, I realized that I hadn't given him a chance."

Artson was not alone on that score. Shelden said every Jew he knows had the same reaction.

"I talked about it with my tennis partners and someone said, "I heard he's on the short list.' And I said, "I guess that won't happen.' "

Because they live in a heavily Jewish community, none of these men have any idea how much genuine anti-Semitism Lieberman might encounter as he campaigns in parts of the country where the Jewish population is negligible.

In their years in public life, Waxman and Levine said they have received a nasty letter now and then -- but nothing too surprising. They said they were pleasantly surprised that some fundamentalist Christians have even expressed admiration for Lieberman because of his devotion to his faith.

Shelden said he believes the choice of Lieberman comes at a time when more and more Jews are willing to embrace their heritage. To illustrate his point, he tells the story of a close friend who recently became a "born-again Jew." Just a few years earlier, he said, "she had the biggest Christmas tree in the valley."

Artson offers several other fresh examples of public figures who do not hesitate to claim their Jewish heritage.

He notes that national poet laureate Robert Pinsky recently published a book of his verse for a secular audience that has the sacred Holy Ark on the cover. At the same time, he added, singer Barbra Streisand has a new CD out that ends with a traditional Hebrew song.

Whether or not the Gore-Lieberman ticket is elected, all of these men agree that the Lieberman candidacy has erased many of the assumptions -- including their own -- about Jews in public life.

For Shelden, who followed all the ups and downs of Hank Greenberg's baseball career, it seems like a miracle.

He still remembers in great detail how Greenberg homered in the 1934 World Series after he found a rabbi would sanction his decision to play on Rosh Hashana. But neither Greenberg nor Sandy Koufax, another famous Jewish ballplayer, would play on Yom Kippur.

And Shelden remembers, too, another day during the same era when the Detroit Tigers were playing the Chicago White Sox. When Greenberg came to bat, Shelden said, one of his opponents yelled, "Throw a pork chop at him; he won't hit it."

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