Undressed up


One day last month, Barack Obama was having dinner with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Hillary Clinton was on the floor of the Senate. And Tom Vilsack? He was at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Burbank, with me.

That's when I knew his campaign was in trouble.

Vilsack entered alone, schlepping a carry-on. He ordered his lunch — coffee with milk and a lemon poppy-seed muffin — and sat down at a small corner table with me, after 17 cities in 14 days, too tired even for small talk. Vilsack, a popular former two-term governor of Iowa, is tall, solid, a character out of “Our Town.” Our meeting was yet another reminder that while incumbency is wholesale, speaking to millions, campaigning can be depressingly retail, one on one on one.

I could quickly see why Vilsack thought he had a chance. His centrist politics, his mature demeanor, his life story were all compelling. Abandoned by his birth parents, he was raised by loving but troubled parents — an alcoholic and abusive mother, for starters. Vilsack went on to earn a law degree and reach the statehouse. He won every race he ever entered, as he liked to remind supporters.

He was a two-term Democratic governor in a solidly red state. He opposed the Iraq War from the start, and he left office with a solid surplus after inheriting a severe deficit. Though not flashy or overly charismatic, he is amiable and straightforward. Maybe not the guy you'd want to have a beer with, but definitely good for a muffin and coffee.

I sought out Vilsack because, of all the candidates so far, he had a detailed plan for achieving energy security — he had made it the cornerstone of his campaign.

In fact, that was another clue that Vilsack's days were numbered: When the media crowns you the winner of “the idea primary,” as the Washington Post did, that's like being named “Greatest Maimonides Scholar” at the Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest. Nice skill, wrong contest.

Vilsack was unafraid to get specific on energy independence, in part because he had a track record, in Iowa, of achieving it.

Under his leadership, Iowa built six new state-of-the-art coal and natural gas power plants (the first in 20 years); became the leading state per capita in wind generation; and became the No. 1 producer of ethanol and soy diesel. Leading from the center, involving powerful industry and farm interests, he turned Iowa's energy economy around using clean technologies and creating a record level of employment.

Vilsack's campaign was built on doing the same for America.

Energy was Vilsack's key platform, because, he told me, energy is key to America's economic, environmental and national security. Solve the energy problem, he said, and you've made America safer, cleaner and more secure.

His platform detailed a range of federal incentives to increase the production and consumption of renewable fuel and energy; to sharply raise vehicle emission standards; to research alternative energy sources and increase conservation; to address the true costs of nuclear and coal-powered generations.

None of this was just bumper sticker slogans to Vilsack.

While governing a state basically known for growing corn and MFA's in creative writing, Vilsack correctly realized that corn is not the most efficient way of producing ethanol. He called for switching to other crops and in the meantime removing the tariff on Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugarcane and whose importation corn growers have long opposed.

I asked Vilsack how that idea played among Iowa farmers.

“This campaign lacks a lot of things,” he said, “but guts isn't one of them.

“Look,” he said. “There's nothing easy about what I'm proposing about energy security. This is a significant commitment to changing our economy and changing our approach to the rest of the world. It has to be done.”

The line from Iowa wind to Brazilian sugarcane to Israel was clear to him.

“A substantial reduction in our reliance on Middle Eastern oil puts us in a position where we have greater independence from that part of the world,” he said, “because we aren't as beholden to Saudi Arabia, for example. Nor are we directly funding countries like Iran that wish to do us harm, and wish to do Israel harm. It's extremely important from a national security standpoint and from a global security standpoint that we become ultimately independent from that foreign source of oil.”

Anyway, never mind. Vilsack's name might get floated for vice president or, more likely, for secretary of energy. But as far as Campaign 2008 is concerned, he's through. Last week, Vilsack pulled out of the race, citing his inability to compete with high profile money-raisers like Clinton and Obama.

How appropriate that the presidential race is gearing up now, just as we mark the Purim holiday. To get even close to winning, the candidates must simplify their personas, or adopt different ones.

Either way, we end up voting for the mask, not the man or woman.

But Vilsack came out early, without the mask. It may be that some other candidate, Republican or Democratic, will pick up on Vilsack's plan and run with it. I hope so. But for that candidate such a policy may end up being part of the mask, not the core, as it clearly was for Vilsack.

“There's only one person in this race who actually created a renewable energy economy,” Vilsack reminded me, “and that's me.”

We spoke for an hour. His cell phone rang once or twice, then a very young aide came to take him away. The candidate's biggest media close-up was to occur in an hour, when he would appear on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno had made so much fun of Vilsack's last name, he invited him on for a couple of minutes in the name of good sportsmanship.

A couple of gags and a week later, and Vilsack was out of the race.

Tommy, we hardly knew ye.

Happy Purim.

Dean’s Judaism Ties Span Decades


In the middle of a rowdy rendition of “I Have a Little
Dreidel” at the Sobelson family Chanukah party in Concord, N.H., Howard Dean
walked in and declared himself the cantor. 

The Democratic presidential candidate recited the blessings
over the candles in near-perfect Hebrew in a dining room crowded with campaign
staffers. 

“It’s another Jewish miracle,” Carol Sobelson exclaimed. 

After more songs and a reprise of the Chanukah blessings for
Israeli television, Dean passed out doughnuts and cake. It was just a regular
Chanukah for Dean, the former Vermont governor later said, “except there’s
usually only four of us, instead of 54 of us.” 

Dean’s most immediate connection to Judaism is his Jewish
wife and the couple’s two children, who identify themselves as Jews. But Dean
said he has been connected to the religion for decades. Dean never considered
converting to Judaism, but he said the family did ponder the prospect of
joining the Reform synagogue in Burlington, Vt., though they “never got around
to it.”  

The candidate’s ties span from a college friendship with a
Zionist activist and frequent political appearances at Vermont’s synagogues, to
lighting the menorah and participating in other Jewish rituals at home. 

“We light the menorah. We have about three of them; we sing
the prayers,” Dean revealed recently as he was being driven from the Chanukah
party back to his hotel. “We always like the first night the most, because we
like the third prayer.”

Dean asked the Sobelsons if he could chant the “Shehecheyanu,”
the blessing for a first-of-the-season event, even though it was the third
night of Chanukah. He got permission from Rachel Sobelson, 19, his New
Hampshire campaign office manager and daughter of the hosts, who said it was
OK, because “it’s the first night that Howard Dean is at the house.” 

Dean is spending a lot of time in New Hampshire, and it’s
paying off. He has a healthy lead in polls the state, and political pundits
have all but anointed him the favorite to win the Democratic primary campaign.

The candidate stopped by the Manchester, N.H., Jewish
Federation Dec. 21 to pass out Chanukah presents for children. He brought two
of his own childhood favorites — an air hockey game and the electronic board
game, Operation. 

Dean’s first spiritual home was the Episcopal Church, but he
became a Congregationalist after fighting with the Episcopal Church in Vermont
25 years ago over a bicycle path. Rivals say the switch signaled a cavalier
approach to worship, but Dean said his move was prompted by his former church’s
arrogance. 

“We were trying to get the bike path built,” Dean told ABC’s
“This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “They had control of a mile and a half
of railroad bed, and they decided they would pursue a property-right suit to
refuse to allow the bike path to be developed.”

Born Nov. 17, 1948, in East Hampton, N.Y., Dean had a
prep-school education and grew up in New York City and at a country house on
Long Island. His first connection with the issues and concerns of the Jewish
community came when he enrolled at Yale in 1967 and became friends with David
Berg, a fellow student, who was a former president of Young Judaea.

“My memory is that Howard was unusually interested,
respectful and accepting of that whole part of who I was,” Berg, a psychologist
in New Haven, Conn., said from Burlington, where he was visiting his daughter,
a staffer in the campaign, and the Deans, with whom he spent Chanukah. 

In college, Dean was unafraid to discuss Middle Eastern
politics in the tumultuous period following the 1967 Six-Day War. 

“It was a prickly topic of conversation, and I confess to
being prickly in conversations in that regard,” Berg said. “Howard was not
afraid to have those conversations, not from a critical point of view, but from
a curious point of view.” 

Their friendship developed over the years, and Berg
counseled Dean on his interactions with the Jewish community — for instance,
when he attended the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and
married a Jewish woman. Dean chose Einstein, the medical school of Yeshiva
University, simply because it was the best school available to him, but the
selection clearly impacted his education on Jewish issues. 

“I used to commute with a woman who was Orthodox and kept
kosher, so I learned a lot about the dietary laws and more ritualistic parts of
Judaism,” Dean said. 

Berg said Dean felt very comfortable in the environment at
Einstein. 

“I remember us sitting down and talking about kashrut at the
dining hall at Einstein,” he said. “He wasn’t afraid of making a mistake; he
wasn’t treating it like going to a foreign country.” 

These days, Dean slips into Jewish terminology like a set of
comfortable old clothes. Before a November debate in a Des Moines, Iowa,
synagogue, he circulated among congregants and chatted amiably about how hard
it was for Burlington’s Orthodox shul to get a minyan together until Chabad
Lubavitch came to town.

When Dean began to date his future wife, Judith Steinberg, a
fellow student at Einstein, Berg broached the issue of intermarriage. 

“I had slightly mixed feelings about it from the Jewish
side,” Berg said. “There was some of my mother in me saying, ‘This is a Jewish
person marrying a non-Jewish person.'” But, he said, “I got over that quickly.”

Dean’s family had little problem with the fact that he was
marrying a Jewish woman, the candidate said. 

“I think the reason it wasn’t an issue in my family was
because my father was a Protestant and my mother was a Catholic, and when they
got married, that was a very big deal,” Dean said. “My father, I think, was
determined not to put me through the experiences he went through when he
married outside his faith.” 

Dean’s mother bonded with his future wife over a shared love
of The New York Times Book Review, which no one else in the Dean family read.
However, while the Deans welcomed Steinberg, “there were a few
insensitivities,” the candidate said. The first time Dean brought his future
bride home for Christmas in East Hampton, Dean’s uncle served ham. Steinberg
doesn’t keep kosher, but Dean still found it inappropriate. 

And there was some frustration in the Steinberg household
that Judith was marrying a Christian.

“It was a little bit of an issue for Judy’s grandmother,
because she was of the old school,” Dean said. “But she loved me, and I loved
her.” 

Steinberg’s grandmother would tell Dean stories about
escaping pogroms in Poland and coming to the United States by herself at age
17. 

“We were very close, even though she would have been happier
if I were Jewish,” Dean said. 

Steinberg’s parents were less concerned.  Steinberg, who
Dean said is “not political at all,” has given few interviews and does not
campaign with her husband. The campaign did not make her available for comment,
but her spokeswoman, Susan Allen, has said that Steinberg views time spent with
reporters as time taken away from her patients. 

The Deans soon settled in Vermont, where they began a medical
practice and a family. The couple has two children: Annie, who is studying at
Yale, and Paul, who is a senior in high school. 

“From early on, he was committed to them both to giving them
some Jewish education,” Berg said, noting that Dean would take the children to
synagogue. Neither child had a bar or bat mitzvah or much formal Jewish
education. Dean has said he allowed both children to choose their religion, and
both now identify as Jewish. 

The family celebrates Passover and the High Holidays at
home. Many in Vermont’s Jewish community tell of how Dean skipped an appearance
with Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s to travel to New York to be at a
Passover seder with his family. 

“It is a household in which their Jewish heritage was never
denied or soft-pedaled,” Berg said. But Berg also acknowledged that the Deans
don’t practice Judaism as he would define it. 

“Religion was never a central feature of their family life,”
he said. 

Rabbi David Glazier, who leads Burlington’s Reform synagogue,
Temple Sinai, said he is not really sure what the family’s religious practices
are. A Congregationalist in a family where everyone else sees themselves as
Jewish is hard to define, he said. 

“The paradox is between himself and what the Jewish
community is,” he said. 

Glazier first met Dean briefly when the rabbi was asked to
give an invocation in the state Senate, and Dean, then the lieutenant governor,
was presiding.  Dean was thrust into the governor’s office in 1991 with the
sudden death of Gov. Richard Snelling. Glazier’s synagogue invited Dean to
speak one Friday night to express its appreciation for the smooth transition. 

By that time, Dean had become a full-time politician, forced
to give up completely the family medical practice that he had scaled down after
being elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1982 and after
becoming lieutenant governor in 1986. 

When he attended political events at the synagogue, Dean
would remark that he felt very comfortable, Glazier said, and once said he
would like to join the temple. Dean said he left the decision about joining the
temple to his wife, and that the family did not get around to affiliating. Berg
suggested that as a mixed-faith family, the Deans were not made to feel
particularly welcome at the synagogue. 

Glazier said that about half the members of his congregation
were not born Jewish, and that his synagogue does extensive outreach to
interfaith couples.

“How much more welcoming can we be?” he asked, concerned
that Dean’s campaign was bad-mouthing his congregation to justify the
candidate’s lack of public displays of faith. Glazier said he tried not to ask
Dean about his family’s religious practices or encourage them to join the
synagogue.  Glazier said Steinberg occasionally comes to the synagogue to pick
up “ritual things she needs.”

Glazier also has tried to get Dean to participate more in
the Jewish world, offering him a Hebrew Bible to use at his gubernatorial
swearing-in. But Glazier, one of three religious leaders who gave prayers at
Dean’s gubernatorial inaugurations, said he hadn’t seen Dean use it. 

“I think he wants to do right,” Glazier said of Dean. “I
think he wants to find a spiritual home but not disturb the context of his
home.” 

Dean said he doesn’t see much difference between his
family’s beliefs and his own. 

“I have a pretty ecumenical approach to religion,” Dean
said. “There is a Judeo-Christian tradition and there are different doctrinal
aspects and different beliefs, but the fundamental moral principles are very
similar between Judaism and Christianity.” 

He does, however, wish his children knew more about
Christianity, having experienced it little beyond Christmases at the home of
Dean’s parents in New York. Dean, himself, said he does not attend church often
but prays every day.  

Why Not Lieberman?


What a difference two and a half years make. When Democratic
presidential candidate Al Gore selected Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his
running mate in 2000, there was a surge of Jewish pride and
support. Now that Lieberman has announced his own candidacy in the 2004
presidential race, there’s a surge of Jewish doubt and ambivalence. Why?

The objections to the Lieberman candidacy reveal a nice mix
of Jewish fears and neuroses. However, they don’t withstand serious scrutiny.

A Jewish president would provoke anti-Semitism. Actually, one
of the most heartening aspects of the 2000 election was precisely that having a
Jew on a major party ticket for the first time was a big yawn among non-Jews.
We braced ourselves for the backlash — and nothing.

Lieberman’s seeking the presidency itself shouldn’t change
matters. Besides, the risk is exaggerated: If Lieberman weren’t president, then
the anti-Semites wouldn’t accuse the Jews of controlling the government? Since
anti-Semitism is irrational, there’s no use trying to placate it.

A related claim is that if a Lieberman presidency messes up
any time, any place, “the Jews” will be blamed. I suppose that’s possible; but,
carried to its logical conclusion, it’s an argument against Jewish excellence
and leadership generally. Ultimately, it’s wrong for Jews to let our enemies
determine how high we can climb and how far we can go in America.

Because Lieberman is Jewish, he would (a) favor Israel; (b)
bend over backward not to favor Israel. Take your pick — each scenario has its
fans, and they make equal sense. The fact that one is as likely as the other is
the clue that neither is likely at all.

Lieberman has a public record of saying what he thinks and
pursuing policies that he believes in. He has strongly supported Israel in its
quest for peace and security. For a decade, he has urged the overthrow of
Saddam Hussein. He has also recognized that the Palestinians have interests,
and refused to demonize Islam. You might or might not find this moderate
approach appealing, but there’s little reason to fear that Lieberman will
change his tune in the Oval Office.Â

Lieberman is too religious. This is another way of saying
that he’s too Jewish. It’s a bit of a puzzle, this Jewish discomfort with PDJ
(Public Displays of Judaism). Jews who value the separation of church (or shul)
and state more than the Torah squirm when Lieberman speaks of his faith. But
the left has not always been so nervous around religion — think of Martin
Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson.

Lieberman is too conservative. This is the odd converse of
the previous complaint, and means that he isn’t Jewish enough, for those who
equate being Jewish with left-wing politics.

Now, look. If you voted in 2000 for Ralph Nader (and thanks
a lot), I understand that you are not likely to be too crazy about Lieberman.
But Voltaire’s aphorism remains apt: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Yearning for ideological liberal purity is a big part of the reason George W.
Bush is president today. Most of the electorate is politically in the middle. Lieberman’s
centrist posture, particularly on national security, is exactly why he’s been
voted the Democrat Most Likely to Give Bush Nightmares.Â

Privately, even Jews who like Lieberman whisper to each
other, “But he can’t win.”

Why? Granted, he probably can’t get the Muslim extremist
vote, the neo-Nazi vote or the anti-Zionist, left-wing lunatic vote. But on the
whole, gentiles are ready for America’s first Jewish president. It would be a
shame if American Jews, for truly flimsy reasons, were not. Â


Paul Kujawsky is the president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed are his, and do not represent those of the organization.

Kerry’s Jewish Roots


First it was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Next it was Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander of NATO during the
war in Kosovo. Now it’s Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry whose
Jewish roots are being reported.

Kerry? The Massachusetts senator, the quintessential WASP-y
looking politician with an Irish-sounding name?

Yup.

Two of Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish, it turns out.

Kerry, who is a practicing Catholic, said he has known for
15 years that his paternal grandmother was Jewish, but had unsuccessfully
searched for news of his paternal grandfather’s roots.

However, a genealogist hired by the Boston Globe found that
Kerry’s grandfather was born to a Jewish family in a small town in the Czech
Republic.

“This is incredible stuff,” Kerry told the Globe. “I think
it is more than interesting. It is a revelation.”

The records show that his grandfather, Frederick Kerry, was
born as Fritz Kohn. He changed his name to Kerry in 1902, immigrated to the
United States in 1905 — and committed suicide in a Boston hotel in 1921.

Frederick Kerry’s story highlights the Jewish experience of
earlier generations, said Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna.

“What we are realizing is how significant was the trend
toward conversion and abandonment of Judaism, for the sake of upward mobility,
in an earlier era of America,” said Sarna, the Braun professor of American
Jewish history at the school in Waltham, Mass. “Given the quite significant
anti-Semitism of the early 20th century and the evident obstacles that stood in
the path to success, people simply changed their names and sloughed off their
Judaism.”

But that path wasn’t always successful, Sarna said.

Kerry’s grandfather’s suicide apparently stemmed from
financial troubles. But one could wonder if, by changing his name and identity,
the man had cut himself off from any sense of community, Sarna said.

The Kerry story also might hold lessons for the present and
future makeup of American Jewry, Sarna added. According to current statistics,
millions of Americans like Kerry may have Jewish roots but don’t consider
themselves Jewish.

“The question is if that is going to be seen a century from
now as a harbinger of where American Judaism is going,” Sarna asked.

Of course, several people contact the American Jewish
Historical Society every year asking for help in their search for Jewish roots.

The e-mails usually run along the lines of, “My name is
Kelly Smith, but my grandmother’s name was Sara Goldstein,” said Michael
Feldberg, the executive director of the historical society, which is based in
New York.

Kerry said he had asked cousins and searched on the Internet,
but had found only bits of information on his family history.

The news does not appear to have major political
ramifications.

There was an initial hubbub when Albright, secretary of
state in the Clinton administration, learned in 1997 that three of her four
grandparents were Jewish. The next time she was in Prague, Albright visited the
Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of her paternal grandparents are inscribed on
a wall among thousands of Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust.

There was little political fallout from her discovery —
though when she dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process many Arab
commentators called her a Zionist and said she had a pro-Israel bias.

Observers say the revelation about Kerry is unlikely to
affect the 2004 presidential race.

“There’s no question there’s a lot of pride in a Jewish
candidate and pride in family Jewish connections, but the American Jewish
community is fairly mature in its political behavior,” said Ira Forman, the
executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

As far as non-Jews go, “had it come out in 1953 instead of
2003, it would have been fatal to his presidential ambitions,” Feldberg said,
but not in today’s world.

Kerry’s revelation adds another Jewish flavor to the 2004
race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(D-Conn.), who declared last month that he will seek the nomination, is an
observant Jew.

Another contender, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, is
married to a Jewish woman and is raising his children as Jews.

And Clark, who told the Forward recently that he is
descended from “generations of rabbis,” is also weighing a 2004 Democratic
presidential bid.

“I wonder what this means for his Saturdays?” Jano Cabrera,
a spokesman for Lieberman’s campaign, joked about Kerry. “Regardless, at this
rate, we should have a minyan at the debates.”  


JTA correspondent Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.