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Wednesday, June 25, 2003
Crash Course in Orthodox Judaism for Lieberman's Aides
(From the New York Times)
May 1, 2003
Crash Course in Orthodox Judaism for Lieberman's Aides
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
WASHINGTON, April 30 — When the nine Democratic presidential contenders
arrive in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday for their first debate, they are
supposed to show up no later than 7:30 p.m., 90 minutes before air time.
Except for Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
He will be there, his aides say, at 8:58, two minutes before the debate
In fact, the reason the debate on ABC News is starting so late on Saturday
night, past many newspaper deadlines and considerably later than other
candidates would have liked, is because Mr. Lieberman will not take his
seat until after the sun has set and he has completed his weekly
observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
There has been much speculation, even among Mr. Lieberman's closest aides,
about whether the nation is prepared to elect its first Jewish president
next year beyond questions like whether Mr. Lieberman is too conservative
for voters in Democratic primaries.
A more immediate question for Mr. Lieberman's campaign is turning out to
be logistical, and it has potentially serious implications for how voters
perceive him. How does an Orthodox Jew run for president while obeying the
extensive and intricate rules that govern the activities of religiously
conservative members of his faith?
Americans were exposed to Mr. Lieberman's religious practices when he ran
for vice president in 2000. His advisers said that was only a challenge in
the initial attention that greeted his selection by Al Gore. Now that it
is Mr. Lieberman who is seeking a spot at the top of the ticket, the
advisers said, the demands on his schedule and the examination of his life
have increased enormously.
The aides, most of whom are not Jewish, have been struggling to get up to
speed on rules and practices that have been debated by Jewish scholars for
centuries. The most influential book around Mr. Lieberman's headquarters
these days is not "The Almanac of American Politics," but "Judaism for
Dummies." (Yes, it exists: John Wiley & Sons, April 2001, including the
cover blurb from none other than Mr. Lieberman.)
The aides, aware that their candidate is prohibited from politicking from
dusk on Friday to past dusk on Saturday, have found Web sites that track
sunsets from New Hampshire to Iowa. They have incorporated into the
official campaign calendar every single Jewish holiday — and there are
many — that may interfere with, say, sending Mr. Lieberman to a forum in
"I don't think everybody fully realized that the last two days of Passover
are no-work days," a senior adviser said with an air of resignation.
The time restrictions may be especially daunting. It is hard to imagine a
more inconvenient time for a presidential candidate to be out of pocket
than from the first half of a weekend, particularly when the candidate has
a day job like, say, being a senator.
Friday nights are prime fund-raising nights, and Saturdays are set aside
for county dinners, union picnics and dusk-to-dawn retail campaigning.
"What it means is he has to do more with less time," Mr. Lieberman's
pollster, Mark J. Penn, said.
Beyond that, political and religious experts said the nation was about to
have an in-depth lesson in the rituals of Orthodox Judaism, from dietary
rules to what activities are permitted on a Saturday, that will surely
shape how Mr. Lieberman is viewed. He is the first Orthodox Jew to run as
a major candidate for president.
Mr. Lieberman's advisers argued that the spirituality symbolized by the
rituals of his observance was central to his appeal as a candidate.
"It reinforces him as a person of faith," Mr. Penn said.
But the aides said the religious practices could complicate one of the
first challenges facing a candidate, convincing the electorate that Mr.
Lieberman is "one of us," as a consultant put it.
"Americans have great respect for religion," said Ken Goldstein, a
professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "So that
But, Professor Goldstein added: "Are they going to think it's a little
weird, a little medieval? Why can't he drive? What's the deal with not
being able to light a fire?"
In 2000, Mr. Lieberman's aides were clearly worried about such
perceptions. So they would find kosher food for him to eat at fund-raisers
or political dinners, but removed the "kosher" label from the dish before
setting down the plate.
Jano Cabrera, a former altar boy who is Mr. Lieberman's spokesman, said
his early days at the campaign had proved to be as informative about
religion as about presidential politics.
"This is another thing I learned," he said with the tone of a student who
had just mastered the end of World War II. "There is sundown. And then
there is sundown. There is, like, sundown when the sun has set, and there
is sundown where observance has stopped. There's a difference!"
Mr. Cabrera was referring to the fact that the Sabbath officially does not
end until the sky is dark enough so that three stars can be seen.
Saturdays are hardly the only off-limits days.
"Most people have no idea how many Jewish holidays there are," said Steve
Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant who has worked here and in Israel.
"There are just so many."
Six nonwork Jewish holidays occur in the fall, a season that tends to be
fairly busy in the election business. A senior Lieberman aide who is not
Jewish, showing his knowledge, said about the Feast of Weeks: "Like
Shavuot is coming up. I know it's a nonwork holiday."
He stopped midsentence and said, "You're pushing me to my limits right
So it is that Mr. Lieberman will be represented by a videotape at a labor
forum in Des Moines in three weeks while his opponents are on stage. He
will also miss the pre-debate fish fry on Friday in Columbia.
Mr. Lieberman does not refer to himself as an Orthodox Jew, a description
that invokes images of ancient solemnity, but rather as "observant." He
belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown here and engages in rituals
associated with the most devout wing of Judaism.
He prays three times a day, and he primarily attends synagogues where men
and women are separated.
On the Sabbath, Mr. Lieberman does not drive or enter cars. He does not
turn on light switches or cook. He will watch a television set only if
someone else has turned it on. Mr. Lieberman does not answer the
telephone, check his Blackberry, turn on a computer or engage in e-mail.
When the shuttle exploded on the Saturday before a planned Sunday trip to
Iowa, Mr. Lieberman's advisers met and quickly concluded that the trip
should be scrapped. But they agonized as they tried to figure out how to
consult the candidate. Finally, they dispatched an aide to Mr. Lieberman's
front door to obtain his approval.
All that said, the demands of observance have provided him some practical
"In some ways," an adviser said, "campaigns are so hard driving it's
almost nice there's a little bit of relief, that the practice of Shabbat
extends to the campaign."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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