I was in my mid-twenties before I met an observant Jew my own age, or even knew that they existed outside of Mea Shearim. Though I recited the Shema hundreds of times in my youth, I never even wondered about the identity of the ritual fringes referred to in the third paragraph.
Indeed, it never occurred to me in the course of my highly identified upbringing that there are still Jews who view the Torah as the guide to life, and for whom its Laws are binding.
With his selection as the Democratic nominee for vice-president of the US, Joseph Lieberman has rendered obsolete all those like my younger self. Lieberman's nomination has sparked a media frenzy of interest in Jewish observance. The day he was tapped for the nomination, national TV caught him reaching up to touch the mezuza on the door of his home.
The details of the candidate's religious observance - Shabbat, tefillin, Torah study - has been the biggest story of the campaign thus far. And if gentiles show such an interest in Judaism, Jews will too. Lieberman's nomination has already sparked renewed interest among Jews in their Judaism. A friend of mine recently solicited money for a Jewish day school from a non-religious business acquaintance with the line: "Support yeshivot. Where else will America produce its presidents and vice-presidents?" To his surprise, the man gave him $1,800.
Among the many myths about Judaism, believed by Jews no less than non-Jews, is that traditional Judaism is obsessed with picayune ritual to the exclusion of matters of the spirit. That myth is dispelled by listening to Lieberman's unaffected descriptions of the power of Shabbat and how the Torah provides him with the answer to life's most fundamental questions: "How did I come to this world?" and "Now that I'm here, how should I live?"
The Lieberman nomination has refuted in one fell swoop 150 years of American Jewry's assimilationist ideology, which posited that Jews would be accepted in Christian America only if they shed all that makes them distinctive. In that vein, one wag quipped on Barry Goldwater's 1964 Republican presidential nomination that it was to be expected that the first presidential nominee of Jewish descent would be an Episcopalian.
Joseph Lieberman, however, was chosen by his friend (and long-time Shabbat goy) Al Gore not despite being an observant Jew, but precisely because he is an observant Jew.
LIEBERMAN'S orthodoxy confers upon him a moral stature in the eyes of Christian America possessed by no other nationally prominent Jew. As Senator John Breaux of Louisiana indelicately put it: "We don't care what church he goes to as long as he goes to church."
Americans reacted very favorably to Lieberman's nomination; 16% said it would make them more likely to vote Democratic, as opposed to only 3% who said it would make them less likely to do so. His selection triggered a huge surge in support for Gore.
That popularity is based in large part on his reputation as the conscience of the Senate. He was the first and most outspoken Democratic critic of the impact of President Bill Clinton's sexual conduct on American youth, and has been a long-time scourge of the moral pollution fostered by Hollywood.
Americans are used to seeing Jews at the forefront of every movement for sexual liberation, whether it be gay rights or abortion on demand. Jews dominate the entertainment industry that promotes freedom from all sexual restraint. In the eyes of Christian America, Jews are perceived as devoid of religious sentiment, if not openly hostile to religion. In the flap over New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to withdraw funding for an exhibit at Brooklyn Museum in which Christianity's most precious symbols were depicted in disgusting fashion, many of the mayor's most vocal critics were Jews. Jerry Seinfeld, cheerfully acknowledging his Jewishness even as he assumes it to be so lacking in meaning that it plays absolutely no role in his life, is, Charles Krauthammer points out, the quintessential modern Jew.
Lieberman represents a throwback to a much older image: that of the biblical prophet preaching justice and righteousness. Ironically, it is an image more familiar to Bible-reading American Christians than to most American Jews, and one with which they are far more comfortable.
Lieberman first came to national attention in 1988, when he did not show up for the Connecticut Democratic convention that nominated him for senator because it took place on Shabbat. Starting the campaign as a decided underdog against a well-known and popular governor, he eked out a narrow victory in a state in which only 4% of the population is Jewish.
In a 1997 speech at a dinner of Agudath Israel of America, Lieberman attributed his victory to his refusal to engage in any political activities on Shabbat. Non-Jewish voters, he found, were reassured by a candidate for whom there are more important things in life than his own political advancement, and who was unwilling to trample every principle in the pursuit of power.
(Israel's last two prime ministers might take note.)
If I sound slightly giddy about the impact of Lieberman's nomination, I am. At the same time, the rhythms of Jewish history inevitably lend a certain apprehension to the elevation of a Jew to such prominent political position.
Shmuel Hanaggid - Talmudic scholar, general and poet - was the most powerful figure in Cordova. But his son ended up chopped to death by the local population.
More recently, the assassination of Jewish foreign minister Walter Rathenau was one of the key events leading to the demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
My concerns about the Lieberman campaign, however, have less to do with his physical safety and more with the fear that many stupid things will be written about Judaism (some already have).