Joseph Lieberman, first Jewish vice-presidential nominee of major party, dies

What follows is an interview we did with the late senator in 2011--in advance of the release of his book "The Gift of Shabbat." 

Joseph Lieberman image
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) speaks at a panel hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran – U.S. Representative Office, August 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Joseph Lieberman, a longtime centrist senator from Connecticut and the first Jewish member of a major presidential ticket, died March 27. He was 82. In 2011, I interviewed him for Jewish Chicago magazine during a promotional tour of his book The Gift of Rest , "a love song" to Shabbat. That story follows. 

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In his new book, Senator Joseph Lieberman recalls one Shabbat in Washington D.C. during the famous 36-day vote recount that followed the contested Bush vs. Gore election in the year 2000.   

Lieberman--a longtime U.S. senator representing Connecticut and the first Jew to run for national office on a major-party ticket--was just about to usher in Shabbat with his wife when he got a call from Vice President Al Gore telling him the Florida Supreme Court had ruled in their favor and ordered a recount from that state. The candidates were elated because they believed if they won Florida, they could win the election.

Since Shabbat was about to begin and Gore knew that Lieberman kept the Sabbath, he invited his running mate and his wife, Hadassah, over to have Shabbat dinner with he and his wife at the time, Tipper.  

So the Liebermans gathered up their Shabbat necessities--candles, wine, challah, and dinner--and transported everything over to the Gores, who had also invited other Washington friends for dinner. That evening, despite the important pending news from the Florida Court, the Gores insisted on turning off all electronics out of respect for the Liebermans. "It was such a joyous, peaceful, and hopeful dinner," Lieberman writes.  

In his new book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath (Howard Books), Lieberman expresses to Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike how he balances his career as a busy senator with his practice as an observant Jew. But mostly, the book is what he calls a "love song" to Shabbat, a separation from the rest of the week and a delightful opportunity to share with family a peaceful day of good food, gratitude, reflection, and--of course--rest.

Q. Why did you write the book?  

A. Joseph Lieberman: This has been something that's been building inside of me for years because of how much Shabbat means to me. As a senator, you try to…make things better for people and it struck me that this gift-that I received from my parents and all the way back to Mt. Sinai of the Sabbath observance-was one of the best things I could offer to other people. I invite the reader to go with my family and me through a typical Shabbat observance…I'm writing the book for people who are not observant or not Jewish, hoping they'll decide to put more Sabbath into their own lives according to whatever practices make sense to them.  

What's your favorite part of Shabbat?  

I love just about every part of Shabbat… I love the spiritual statement it makes about gratitude to G-d for creation and for our lives…Shabbat is so varied, from the serious, spiritual moments in synagogue to the informal and social moments around the table to the communal pleasure of Kiddish to the glory of a Shabbat afternoon nap.   

I most like the moments around the table with the family…now and during my kids' childhood, particularly because I was busy. It was always something wonderful to look forward to at sunset on Friday when everything would stop, and everything would change.  

What are your memories of Shabbat growing up?  

My earliest memories of Shabbat were the preparation at my grandmother's house, where we lived for the first eight years of my life, as if we were preparing for a very honored guest, which of course we were.    

With the huge demands of a busy senator, does it make harder to observe Shabbat? What do you advise to people who say their schedules are too hectic to observe the Sabbath?  

Shabbat is a gift, but you have to choose to accept the gift and once you do, then it gives you much more than it asks of you. There are things you can't do unless there's an emergency, but what it gives you in terms of rest, regeneration, family time, time with G-d, and time with yourself is more beneficial… I feel like I'm able to work harder the other six days of the week because I know that I have the seventh day to rest.   

How do you look back--more than a decade later--on the experience of being the first Jew to run for national office on a major-party ticket?

I look back on the whole experience as an extraordinary opportunity that I was given by Al Gore. It was a thrill until Election Day and the post-election recount.   

As time goes by, I do look back with appreciation of all that happened during the campaign that was positive. One of the most positive things was the honor of being the first Jewish American on a national ticket, but also the validation, for the country more than for me, that it didn't matter to almost everybody in this country that I was Jewish. 

They were going to vote based on the qualifications, opinions, and experience of the candidates of both tickets…[This country] still holds [dear] Article 6 of the Constitution that says that you cannot apply a religious test for public office. I found great respect for my religious observance. It was actually a bond with a lot of people around the country.  


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