‘Spine of steel, heart of gold’: Remembering Joe Lieberman

A who's who of movers and shakers reflect on the senator's political courage, his sense of humor, his common touch and the Jewish values that guided him

As the first Jewish person on a major party presidential ticket, Joe Lieberman made history for American Jews, and for America, when Al Gore tapped him as his running mate in 2000. The announcement sparked widespread excitement and emotion within the Jewish community.

“Though it’s become sort of axiomatic that Jews have great difficulty agreeing on just about anything, this contentiousness, this diversity of opinion, this absolute delight in mixing it up, was almost nowhere to be found last week when Senator Joseph Lieberman was picked to be Al Gore’s running mate,” the journalist Craig Horowitz wrote in New York magazine in 2000. 

The universal pride in Lieberman mirrors the widespread outpouring of grief for the longtime Connecticut senator after his death, at 82, on Wednesday from a fall. Now, American Jews old and young, left and right, have joined together to honor the memory of a man who maintained his Shabbat observance through decades of service in public office and who stood firmly by his beliefs, even when they made him an outcast in a changing Democratic Party. 

We asked community leaders and those close to Lieberman to share reflections on his legacy and stories of his life. 

Norm Eisen, Former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic and longtime Kesher Israel congregant

It’s difficult to come up with just one memory of my friend and mentor Joe, from the times we spent sitting together in synagogue and whispering about politics during breaks in the davening (and sometimes not during breaks), to how hard he worked to get me confirmed as ambassador, to the Shabbat and Yom Tov meals we shared with him and [his wife] Hadassah in D.C. and all over the world. 

One moment that stands out came during one of his and Hadassah’s visits to see us in Prague and going to synagogue with him in the Old New Shul, the oldest continually functioning one in Europe. Both during the services and at the kiddush afterwards, a stream of amazed Czechs (but also American, Israeli and other foreign tourists) spotted him and approached to pay their respects. 

I was struck by how unfailingly courteous and polite he was to each and every one, taking the time to greet them, asking their names and where they were from, and genuinely listening to and connecting with each of them. It spoke to his humility and warmth, character traits so essential to the Torah values that he cherished but that can often be in short supply in some of the halls of power that he strode. That was one of the many reasons that those of us who were privileged to call Joe a friend loved him so much. 

AIPAC spokesperson and former communications director for Sen. Lieberman

I told all the younger staffers who went to work for Joe Lieberman that there was good news and bad news in taking this job. The good news is that Sen. Lieberman will be the best boss you will have in your career and the bad news is that you will never have another boss as good as him. It was true. No one could match Sen. Lieberman’s decency, integrity and strength of character. He literally had a spine of steel and a heart of gold. 

No one could match his commitment to a just cause and no one could match his decency in pursuing it. And along with his deep love for America, he was a lover of Zion and his fellow Jews. Indeed, the hottest journalistic ticket in town was to try to walk with the senator from his Georgetown home to the Capitol when there was a vote on Shabbos. As his communications director, I had to break many reporters’ hearts by informing them the senator would walk alone. 

And in a town with a sometimes stifling uniformity, Sen. Lieberman had the courage to walk alone for a cause he thought was right. I had the honor to also work for Sen. [John] McCain, who loved Sen. Lieberman although they had contrasting dispositions. Sen. McCain, who wasn’t one to get all teary-eyed and sentimental, once said to me about Sen. Lieberman, “That man doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk.”

White House communications director for President Bill Clinton

In recent years, I would see Joe Lieberman mostly at social or organizational events. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word: always a pleasure to talk with him, even briefly.  

But what I remember most vividly today is how excited I was in 2000, when I learned he had been named by Al Gore as his vice presidential nominee. That an American Jew should be chosen for this honor said so much about our country — that it was Joe Lieberman meant there was no question he would make us all proud. He did. He was an effective, popular advocate for the campaign, with a huge number of requests for his appearance. On and off the campaign trail, he represented our community with grace and honor (and a bissel of humor.) 

CEO of the Met Council, a Jewish anti-poverty organization, and former intern and Senate staffer for Lieberman

As a young Orthodox Jew deeply interested in public service, Senator Joe Lieberman inspired my entrance into government and politics. 

During my first week in his Capitol Hill office, a memorable moment unfolded during our professional photo session. I was standing in front of the photographer, who wouldn’t take my picture, leaving me baffled. 

It was then that Sen. Lieberman approached, a big smile spreading across his face, and whispered with a his trademark mix of humor and wisdom, “Just like your mom, the photographer won’t take your pic unless you close your jacket.” 

Following his advice, I quickly buttoned up, and the photographer captured the moment. That photograph, featuring both the senator’s radiant smile and my newfound sense of belonging, proudly adorns my mantelpiece at home. 

I’ve taken hundreds of photos since as an elected official and with elected officials and in every one I make sure to button my jacket.

Executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)

I got a call from the Senate chaplain one day, that there were a couple of senators that would like to come to my Seder in my house, and would I mind if they joined me? So I thought, why not? They want to see what a Seder’s like, they’ll sit there, they’ll ask questions., I didn’t think much of it. Then he calls me back and says that a few more senators heard about it, now they want to come too. And before I knew it, there were eight or 10 of them. 

So I said, Why don’t we do something else? Why don’t we go a week before Pesach, we’ll take a room in the Capitol, and I’ll do a model Seder? It’ll be just like a Seder, it just won’t be on Pesach. So it won’t be them imposing on someone’s home, but rather, this will be a Seder for them. We had, like, 25 senators come. And obviously, we went through all the motions. 

When it came to making kiddush, Joe Lieberman made the kiddush. And he stood there so proud with Hadassah, making the kiddush in front of all his colleagues, who had already gotten used to him by then. He’d been a senator for a few years already. When I think back on all the stories with him, that’s probably one of the top ones. He sanctified Hashem’s name not just that night, but every night. Not just for those senators, but for all senators.

Writer and longtime Kesher Israel member

In the summer of 2000, after Al put Joe on the ticket, we were early in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah reading at shul. It happens that in Va’etchanan, the second portion of the book, the Ten Commandments are reprised, and the custom is that whenever the Ten Commandments are read in shul the entire congregation rises to its feet. Joe usually arrived in shul — he had a long walk from home — around the time that the Torah, on this particular Shabbat the portion of Va’etchanan, was read. Now, Kesher had a rule against journalists bringing their work into shul, spiritual business being off the record, but on that Shabbat a reporter had sneaked into the upstairs gallery to cover the hot new candidate. And the reading of the Ten Commandments began. And Joe walked in. And the reporter reported a few hours later that as soon as the vice-presidential nominee came in, the entire congregation rose to its feet…..

Joe was the original chevreman, with a genius for gregariousness. He was addicted to his fellow human beings: Jews, Americans, the whole human family. He was a man comfortable in his skin and content with his lot, with an unusually calm head and an inexhaustible supply of hope. His devotion to his principles and his causes was exemplary. If, in the last decades of his life, he was politically homeless, it was because the political landscape changed and degenerated around him, and his worldview — the duty of the United States to do good in the world with soft and hard power, the duty of the state to succor and protect the rights of the weak and the scorned and the needy — became anachronistic, to the shame of our country. Patriotism was, for him, one of life’s pleasures. 

The practice of his Judaism was a lifelong exercise in delight. He had no natural understanding of the extent to which religion can be oppressive. He was a grateful son of his country and his people, a happy warrior in their service, a brother in belief and in the fight. Every hour we spent together, and how I shall miss them all, was a memorable trip from seriousness to laughter and back, from laughter to seriousness and back.

Adviser and speechwriter to Lieberman, including on 2000 campaign

He had a classic Borscht Belt style of humor. He was a very good joke teller. When he was doing his retail politics, like when he’d go to some senior centers, he would tell these schticky jokes and would always get huge laughs, and he got a kick out of it. But he recognized the power of humor as a way to get people to let down their guards, build a connection. As a rhetorical device — and I appreciate this as a speechwriter — it was a really valuable tool to set a tone for a speech and particularly using self-deprecating humor. 

That was one of the things that was great about him. He had a healthy ego, like any other politician, but he also didn’t have problems making fun of himself. When he first came to national prominence after the floor speech he gave around the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, he was very much more in the public eye. And he actually got invited to participate in the “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” contest, which was kind of a long-running charitable fundraising event. And the gag of it was they would typically invite a series of prominent public figures in Washington who are not known for being funny and have them do stand-up, and it was a competition. 

Lieberman was very happy to do it. He had a competitive side to him. He put the screws in and said, like, I want a really good monologue. We developed something. There was definitely a heavy load of Catskills-quality material and Jewish humor. He had a few more glasses of wine than he normally would, to kind of calm his nerves and get in the spirit of the event, and he got up and he just instantly won over the crowd with his enthusiasm and his big smile. He was laughing at his own jokes. And the kicker of his monologue was, around that time, Al Franken had published this book called Why Not Me, which was about his mythical presidential campaign. And in the book, he named Lieberman as his running mate. And the joke was, he wanted a balanced ticket, because Franken was a Reform Jew and Lieberman was an Orthodox Jew. So we did a Top 10 list of campaign slogans for the mythical Franken-Lieberman ticket.

“Here’s a few we’re batting around. Let me know what you think, for the Franken-Lieberman all-Jewish ticket,” Lieberman said at the comedy event.

  • “With malice toward none but a little guilt for everyone.”
  • “Tippecanoe and two Jews too.”
  • “A matzah ball in every pot, or all the way with the UJA.”
  • “Franken and Lieberman: No bull, no pork.”
  • “This one is a special bumper sticker for the angry white male vote: Lox and load”
  • “And finally, my favorite: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your mother.”

Walter P. Stern Distinguished Fellow at the Hudson Institute

For my family, our favorite Shabbat every year was the one for which the Liebermans would come back to Washington for what the senator termed “Shabbat Alfalfa.” This special Shabbat was always the night before the Alfalfa Dinner – the most important black-tie event of the year in Washington.  As busy as the senator was, he always had time for old friends, for our kids, and for a pithy d’var Torah.

Not only did the senator infuse the Alfalfa weekend with yiddishkeit, but he also brought Shabbat to another decidedly non-Jewish venue: the Munich Security Conference. Every year, he would gather friends in his room at the Bayerischer Hof for kiddush, motzi and a classic Lieberman d’var torah. There are, of course, and there will be other Jewish members of Congress at Munich, but it is hard to imagine there will be someone to whom observance and pride in tradition is so central. 

It was not through policy that I got to know Sen. Lieberman well. After his mother passed away in 2005, he set an example by leading davening whenever possible, no matter how busy he was. I was often the 10th man at the Friday afternoon minyan at his house during this kaddish year. At morning minyan, as in the U.S. Senate, his humor was legendary. My favorite quip: After a quick l’chaim on the yahrzeit of the father of a mutual friend, he declared, “I never drink after 8 a.m.”  

He did, however, take his davening seriously; our son, Harry, was surprised one day when the senator called him by his Hebrew name. He knew Harry’s name because he was davening for Harry’s health for years, during Harry’s bout with, and recovery from, cancer. 

Another moving interaction with Sen. Lieberman occurred during the Shabbat after the 2008 GOP convention. Two weeks beforehand, my family and I were with the Liebermans and mutual friends on Shabbat, in unspoken but high anticipation that the senator would again make history, this time as John McCain’s running mate and the only man nominated for national office by the Democratic and Republican Parties.  But that dream fell apart when Republican leaders objected to Lieberman’s impending nomination.   

As we arrived at Kesher Israel the Shabbat after Sarah Palin’s nomination, my 10-year-old daughter, Raina, and I bumped into the senator.  I expressed my profound disappointment, but my daughter wrapped her arms around the senator and simply hugged him for what seemed to be an eternity. “Thanks, Raina, I really needed that,” was his response. Even in difficult moments, the senator knew how to make even a 10-year old feel special.

For me, that hug wasn’t just between Raina and the senator, it symbolized the bond between the senator and everyone else who believed in the politics of decency that Joe Lieberman exemplified. That politics of decency was Joe Lieberman’s trademark, especially during his 2000 run for vice president. As a Republican, I watched the senator and Hadassah in shul with awe throughout the 2000 campaign and in the 36 days that followed, culminating in Bush v. Gore.  After that surreal defeat, the senator exhibited superhuman decency: He returned to the Senate, and rather than succumbing to rancor, showmanship or partisanship, he closed ranks after 9/11, placing national security above politics and working closely with President Bush. His extraordinary legacy is one that all of us in Washington should aspire to live up to.

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