In fact, it's not even two degrees: I met Senator Lieberman at Shira and David's engagement party in June. He was wearing a yarmulke. He was eating lasagna and miniature quiches. I am pretty sure he joined in for the singing of the traditional wedding song, "Od Yeshama." Everyone I know seems to knows someone who knows him. They went to school with his kids, they go to the same shul as he does in Georgetown. He is one of us, and this is where the anxiety begins.
People are asking: Is America ready for this? So Gore/Lieberman will win New York and other states with large Jewish populations. But are Americans--in Alabama and Iowa and Texas--really so comfortable with diversity in general and Jews in particular that a kosher-keeping, shul-going vice president is going to fly? But more than wondering if the rest of America is ready for this, I wonder first: Are we?
If Madonna's and Michael Jackson's interest in Judaism signaled that we were on our way to full mainstream, pop-cultural acceptance, surely this means we have arrived. Now there might be a Seder in the White House on Passover. State dinners might be kosher. Just imagine a sukkah--a temporary booth Jews use during autumn's Festival of Booths--out behind the vice president's residence, the vice president demonstrating for the press corps how exactly he shakes the lulav and esrog, the palm branch and citron used on that holiday. Will he be photographed in tallis and tefillin?
Am I the only one who is starting to feel a little nervous?
Having grown up as an observant Jew in Memphis, I am used to feeling self-conscious. When I explained to non-Jews that I kept kosher, I felt a prickle of nervousness as to what the reaction would be. In Tennessee, wearing a yarmulke is not a sign of being an observant Jew; it's a sign that you have some strange I-don't-know-what-that-is on your head. Even during my first week at Columbia University, when I tried to explain to a non-Jewish suite-mate why I couldn't turn the bathroom light on or off on the Sabbath, she asked me if this was a sorority thing. She wasn't being unfriendly or judgmental: It just seemed strange to her that I was going to the bathroom in the dark, which, I suppose, it was.
What comes with this openness about being Jewish is a concern with the principle of chillul Hashem--the desecration of God's name, the notion that what one Jew does will affect public opinion of all Jews. Whether we wear our Jewishness inside or out, comfortably or with varying degrees of self-consciousness, this fear of being judged as a group is there, and the brighter the spotlight, the more reason there is to feel this nervousness.
Having a Jew as second-in-command is not without precedent in Jewish history. In the book of Esther, the story of the Jews being saved from the evil Haman ends with Mordechai being appointed as King Ahashverosh's right-hand man. Lieberman could easily be cast as the modern-day Mordechai, and that is without even going into the fact that Esther, the heroine of the story, was also known as Hadassah, which is the name of Senator Lieberman's wife. But a Jewish second-in-command isn't the only relevant part of the book of Esther. What sets the story in motion is Mordechai's refusal to bow down to Haman when ordered to, and as a result, Haman's campaign to have all the Jews killed. His anger at Mordechai was easily extended to the whole Jewish nation.
This story illuminates what is at the root of much of the Jewish anxiety about a Vice President Lieberman. This fear of collective blame--rightly or wrongly--is still very much present. My mother worries for Gore: Maybe he really can't win now, and it's going to be because of Lieberman. My friend's grandmother is afraid that if anything goes wrong, it will be bad for the Jews. If the economy goes south, if there is a war, it will be blamed on the Jews. Another friend thinks it's just a terrible idea all around: Who needs this kind of attention, he asks. If Lieberman sides with Israel, will he be accused of dual loyalty? And imagine, God forbid, an out-and-out scandal.
All of a sudden, this election feels personal. Many of our anxieties as American Jews are highlighted and embodied by Lieberman. Whether we want to be or not, we are out there on the campaign trail with him. With Lieberman as the Jewish vice president, the games of presidential campaigns and politics come close to home. Just a degree of separation away, Lieberman is not the only one who is up for this kind of extreme scrutiny. And that, I think, is enough to make anyone nervous.