Senator Joseph Lieberman 1942-2024

Senator Joseph Lieberman 1942-2024

His brother-in-law, Ary Freilich, talks to us about a life well lived

Senator Joseph Lieberman
Senator Joseph Lieberman

When Joseph Lieberman died on March 27, the American Jewish community lost the first Jew to run for vice president, a politician who was a prominent voice for Israel, whose unashamed public practice of modern Orthodoxy was a source of pride, and Americans in general lost a figure who did what he believed was right, and whose instincts always tracked to the center — a place where, it seems, despite everything, most Americans feel most at home.

Mr. Lieberman, who was born in 1942, was 82 years old.

But Ary and Judy Freilich lost much more than that. The Freilichs, who lived in Englewood for decades and were prominent figures in the Jewish philanthropic world in Bergen County, lost a dearly beloved brother-in-law.

“I had a very close relationship with Joe, and the four of us — Judy, Hadassah, Joe, and I — were very close,” Mr. Freilich said.

Ary Freilich is the younger brother of Hadassah Freilich Lieberman, who was married to Joe since 1983. The Freilichs are the children of Holocaust survivors; Hadassah was born in Prague, although her parents had moved to Gardner, Massachusetts, where her father, Rabbi Samuel Freilich, led a Conservative shul. Rabbi Freilich had survived slave labor camps, and his wife, Ella Wieder Freilich, who was a force of nature, survived Auschwitz and Dachau while somehow managing to retain an eye for fashion. (She managed, somehow, indomitably, to tailor her camp uniform to look less horrifying; it’s now in the collection of the Museum of American Heritage in downtown Manhattan.)

Judy Silbermann Freilich grew up in Englewood; her father, Kurt Silvermann, who was the cantor at Temple Emanu-El for decades, when it was in Englewood, and her mother, Inge May Silbermann, also escaped the Holocaust, Kurt via the Kindertransport.

From left, Senator Joe and Hadassah Lieberman stand with Ary Freilich and his daughter Elizabeth Freilich at a Jewish Home annual gala.

Joe Lieberman, on the other hand, came from American-born parents, Henry and Marcia Manger Lieberman. Henry Lieberman grew up poor but was able to maintain a comfortable life for his family in Stamford, Connecticut. “Joe’s father owned a liquor store,” Mr. Freilich said. “In between customers, his father would read.”

Joe Lieberman was the president of his class in Stamford High School. He was the first in his family to go to college but he did it in style — he went to Yale.

Next, he went to Yale Law School.

He was one of a group of men who went to Yale at around the same time and later became powerful and famous, doing good while doing well, Mr. Freilich said; that group included President Bill Clinton and Senator John Kerry. “Like many of them, he was captivated by JFK’s message — go find things to do that will benefit our country. Make the world a better place. That was the challenge of the era. He decided to do that.”

Avoiding one of the most incendiary issues of his time, Mr. Lieberman stayed out of Vietnam through a series of deferrals, first for being a student and then for being a married father. That was his first marriage; Hadassah was his second wife, and he her second husband. The two had three children, one each from their first marriages and one together.

After about three years in private practice at a law firm, Mr. Lieberman ran for a seat in Connecticut’s state senate; he won, and stayed there for 10 years, six of them as majority leader. He ran for a House seat and lost; then for three years, he was his state’s attorney general.

Joe Lieberman concedes his defeat in the Democratic senatorial primary; he went on to run successfully as an Independent and return to the Senate.

Going back to his days as a college undergraduate, Mr. Lieberman became the editor in chief of the Yale Daily News — a highly prestigious position — and he wrote for the paper as well. Somehow during that time “his articles caught the eye of William Buckley.” That was William F. Buckley, an influential conservative intellectual whose supercilious drawl made him seem high WASP although he was famously Catholic. Buckley was the founder of the National Review, the host of the television show “Firing Line,” and, perhaps most relevantly here, the author of “God and Man at Yale.”

Despite their differences — Buckley was born in 1925 and was a deeply conservative Republican, Lieberman was a Democrat nearly 20 years his junior, Buckley was a Christian and Lieberman, to state the obvious, was not — “when Joe decided to do a longshot run against the incumbent liberal Republican senator, Lowell Weicker, Buckley decided that he was so unhappy with Weicker’s performance that he would back the Democrat running against him.”

Mr. Lieberman won. He represented Connecticut in the Senate from 1989 to 2013. He was a Democrat for most of those years, although eventually he left his party to become an Independent, not only running but winning on that flimsy label.

Joe Lieberman and Hadassah Freilich met in the early 1980s. Both were divorced; a mutual friend introduced them, Mr. Freilich said. “He went to Hadassah’s apartment expecting to go out on a date, and the first thing she said to him was, ‘Can you help me move my dining room table?’”

She was living in Riverdale then, with her young son, (now Rabbi) Ethan Tucker.

The task completed, the two did go out, and they liked each other. At the end of the evening, Mr. Freilich reported, “he said to her, ‘I know you are going to think that I’m insincere, but I’m running for attorney general of Connecticut, and we’re going into high election season for the next couple of months. I’m enjoying my date with you very much, but I won’t be able to see you for another month.’

The Liebermans are flanked by presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton at a dialogue moderated by Doris Kearns Goodwin at the Streicker Center at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

“She figured that he was blowing her off.

“But then, he became attorney general, and he came back after the election, and he said, ‘I’m back!’ She was surprised.

“It was a rapid romance. We knew it was serious when Hadassah invited him for Thanksgiving at Inge and Kurt Silberman’s house in Englewood. We know Hadassah wouldn’t have invited him unless it was a serious romance. He got the Inge trial by fire” — Judy Freilich’s mother was well known for her incisive, often impolitic wit – “and they got married soon after.” That was in 1982; the couple had been married for 42 years when he died.

In the mid 1980s, Bill Clinton worked with another politician, Al From (who, as his name suggests, was Jewish — but didn’t want to mention it too often, Mr. Freilich said), to form the Democratic Leadership Council. The group’s intent was “to prevent what they considered to be the Democratic party’s destructive slide to the left. Bill Clinton was its first president, and Joe was its second.

“That’s where his friendship with Clinton began,” Mr. Freilich continued. “Joe was always cut from what I call a Kennedy cloth — pro business, pro a tax structure that did not throttle business, and pro a vigorous foreign policy. That was the DLC’s position – it believed in free enterprise but they were not heartless right-wingers.

“Let’s jump forward a few years, to Clinton’s second term, when he had his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky,” he said. There was an enormous tension between the Democrats and the Republicans over this. Two camps were formed. At that point, the issue was the dalliance. The Republicans were ready to hang Clinton, and the Democrats refused to talk about what they said was a private sexual consensual matter.” (Our society’s understanding of that relationship has changed radically since then, but this part of the story is more clearly understood without hindsight.)

Senator Lieberman speaks at a benefit for the Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh.

“The battle lines were formed.

“And then Joe, who at that time was a moderately known senator, made a very controversial speech.” In that speech, Mr. Lieberman called his friend Bill “immoral.” Clinton had weakened the presidency, he accused. But he did not call for Mr. Clinton’s removal from office. “Joe essentially said to his friend” — in public — “that it is not fair to say that you did nothing wrong, that what you did affects only you and should be ignored. You are the president of the United States, and this is not appropriate for you. You should be criticized for it. We should not look the other way.

“On the other hand, Republicans, give me a break. Don’t go nuts. This is something to criticize someone over  — but not to impeach him for.”

The speech was seen as an attack on Clinton — one Democrat going after another Democrat, and an erstwhile friend at that — but “Clinton called Joe to thank him for it,” Mr. Lieberman said.

“To this day people like Joe’s great enemy Gail Collins” — the longtime New York Times columnist — “cite the speech as a horrible act of betrayal, but it really was a classic example of Joe Lieberman forming his own perspective and saying it publicly. His position was legitimate, and it has aged well. I think it was exactly the right thing to say.

“It was emblematic of a number of stands Joe took.”

In Englewood, Senator Joe Lieberman reads the Temple Emanu-El bulletin as Judy Freilich’s mother, Inge Silbermann, looks on; Cantor Kurt Silbermann of Emanu-El is at the far left.

That seemed to culminate in the speech Mr. Lieberman gave before the 2008 presidential election. “He said, ‘Barack Obama is a marvelous speaker and has enormous potential,’” Mr. Freilich said, quoting his brother-in-law. “With seasoning, he will make a great president — but at this time, John McCain” — Obama’s Republican opponent — “is the right man for the job.’

“He didn’t do it for political advantage, although now it is fair to say that it might have led the way to a different country than we have right now. Bipartisanship might be different.” That is to say, bipartisanship might exist. Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman were actual friends, not just work buddies. “McCain had a kosher barbecue at his ranch in Arizona, so that Joe and Hadassah would be comfortable there,” Mr. Freilich remembered.

Famously, Mr. McCain had wanted to tap Mr. Lieberman to run as vice president on his presidential ticket, but — maybe because his advisors thought that their competing views on abortion would be bad for the ticket, maybe because Mr. Lieberman was Jewish and that too could be a drag — the Republican went with Sarah Palin instead. “It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” McCain later wrote. “But my gut told me to ignore it — and I wish I had.”

This brings us to Mr. Lieberman’s Senate career, and his actual vice-presidential run.

With Buckley’s help, the young Democratic insurgent won his first Senate bid. “He won by a narrow margin – but he won,” Mr. Freilich said. “And that was a big deal. He won by enormous margins in his subsequent runs, until his support of President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq caused his popularity among Democrats to tank. He lost the Democratic primary to a candidate to his left — Ned Lamont, now Connecticut’s governor. “It was the worst moment in his political career, being punished by his own party for having his own views,” Mr. Freilich said. “And he woke up the next day and said, ‘Despite the fact that my own party will not nominate me, I will run — as an independent.’

“He did something that had not been done in the history of the United States. He switched parties to Independent and won handily in the Senate election against Ned Lamont and a Republican. He won by a big margin, because even though some people resented him because of his support of the war, and his remarks about Clinton, and some because he voted against the single payer option for healthcare, enough people respected him and supported him.

Ary Freileich and Jon Bon Jovi are together on the campaign trail in 2000.

“He said that was the single greatest moment of his political career.”

Because he was so good at mending and maintaining relationships, one of the eulogists at Mr. Lieberman’s funeral was his one-time opponent, Mr. Lamont.

The most famous part of Mr. Lieberman’s political career, most likely the one for which he will be remembered the longest, was his run for vice president, on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore. Mr. Freilich has vivid first-hand memories of it. “Speaking for myself, I got to see parts of America that I never expected to see,” he said. “I took some time off work” — he ran a flourishing real estate business — “and I was on the campaign bus and on flights around the country. I got it to chat it up with the lawyer David Boies, and with Jon Bon Jovi, and with a long list of other people.”

He noted how his sister and brother-in-law always attracted Jewish audiences.

“We were in some remote town in Wisconsin after having been on the bus for a couple of days,” he said. “A Chabad family wanted to make sure the senator had some kosher food to eat, so when we got to the hold room, where candidates wait before the rally, we saw a series of tightly stapled bags on a window ledge, with a note on them saying ‘We don’t have any kosher supermarkets out here, but I am happy to be able to provide some food for you.’ And the note had his rabbinic lineage” — his yichus — “to make the case for why the senator should be willing to eat his food.” (It worked. The Liebermans were convinced, and they ate.)

“Once, there was a rally in a remote part of Minnesota. It was held in the hangar in the airport. I was with my sister then — Joe wasn’t there — and a bus pulled into the rally from a girls’ yeshiva in a city hundreds of miles away, in probably the closest city big enough to have a girls’ yeshiva. They were all excited to meet Hadassah, because she was one of theirs.

Hadassah and Joe Lieberman exude the joy they felt in campaigning.

“There were a number of adults chaperoning the girls, and some of them were Holocaust survivors.”

That brought Mr. Freilich to a phenomenon he’d seen often on rope lines across the country, as his sister and brother-in-law walked down them, shaking hands, making eye contact.

“Survivors would begin rolling up their sleeves to show Hadassah their tattoos. That repeated itself all over the country.” How did Ms. Lieberman react? “She stopped and spoke to every one of them,” her brother said.

He remembers how his sister prepared to introduce her husband at the Democratic convention.

“She was going to give a short speech, and we went down onto the floor of the Staples Convention Center in L.A. to see her practice,” he said. “She was using a teleprompter. She had a hard time reading it without her glasses. She began and screwed up the first sentence. Began again and screwed up the first sentence. Began again and screwed up the second sentence. Began again and again screwed up the second sentence.

“It was only four sentences. It was terrible. I went upstairs to speak to one of the campaign managers. I said, ‘I hate to say this, but I don’t think her introducing Joe will go over well. She just can’t read it right. It will be terrible, and they will play it over and over again.’

he 2002 presidential election was still undecided when the Liebermans had Thanksgiving dinner at the Freilichs’ house in Englewood.

“And the campaign manager said, ‘We can’t help it. At this point, we have to do it.’

“That night, she walked on stage. Judy and I were sitting there, next to each other, both terrified. She walked on stage, dressed perfectly, looking great, and gave a perfect introduction. It was not only flawless, it was terrific. The crowd reacted positively, and there were thousands of signs that said ‘Hadassah!’

“She had been a drama major. She was up there, embracing the crowd, tapping on her heart. It was perfect. And I sat there and thought, ‘No one is ever going to listen to me again.’”

The counting of the hanging chads and the Supreme Court’s intervention were very difficult. “It was very tense,” Mr. Freilich said. “The Liebermans and the Gores got together every night in Washington. — they were very close, and very comfortable with each other. So there they were, hanging out with each other, in their own private hell.”

Later, Mr. Lieberman’s mother was reported as having told him, “No one died. You still have a job. It’s time to get back to work.” And he did.

Mr. Freilich has some memories of his brother-in-law set in New Jersey.

He remembers the two talks Mr. Lieberman gave at the annual gala at the Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh – an organization on whose board Mr. Freilich sat for years. “The first time was almost immediately after 9/11,” he said. “Like a week later. We’d planned for a band, dancing, celebrating — and of course we had to cancel all that and change the tone. He spoke. It was very emotional.”

The neighborhood was full of police cars, and a Secret Service agent had a dog sniff the house for explosives.

He also remembers the Thanksgiving when Mr. Lieberman was running for vice president, and he and his family came to dinner at the Freilichs’ house. (Inge and Kurt Silberman had handed off Thanksgiving-making to their daughter and son-in-law by then.)

“About a week before Thanksgiving, the Secret Service began emptying out our garage to use it as their command center, and they began wiring the house for special phone lines,” he said. “On Thanksgiving Day, the street was entirely blocked off. The neighbors had been warned,” although he never did learn how they felt about it.

“So the German shepherd comes to sniff the house for explosives, and Judy is making turkey,” he continued. “It’s the point in the cooking where that great turkey smell is all over the house, and the dog is going through the house, drooling all over the floor.

“There were 40 guys. They stayed in the garage; they had to be there overnight. Judy made a second turkey, and all of us went to the garage to serve them food and drinks. The Secret Service ate in shifts. Afterward, they gave Judy gorgeous flowers, and a plaque with an inscription, and they said that Joe was one of the best to work with. The Liebermans always fed them and welcomed them and made them feel at home.”

The agents had to know who was allowed in the house. They had lists, but because their shifts were staggered not everyone recognized everyone. Judy and Ary have two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth; their older daughter, Sarah, came home from college for Thanksgiving. She’d been out with some friends; by the time she got home, in the middle of the night, the Secret Service shift had changed. “None of them knew her, and they wouldn’t let her in the house,” Mr. Freilich said. “She finally had to call us to get in.”

Mr. Freilich looks at Joe Lieberman as having lived a very good life. “It is a terrible loss, so terrible that we don’t even fully understand what it means, because he was so critical and so central a member of the family,” he said. “But at the same time, although we mourn his sudden departure, we feel that his was a life that we all can admire, even envy.

“Eighty-two years of good health, a loving marriage — it was the real thing — a united and happy family, a career that gave him experiences and opportunities that most of us could only dream of having. People all over the world greeted him with respect and warmth. He derived enormous benefit and strength from his faith and from the synagogue communities of which he was an important member.

“And so as unhappy as we are now, we count our blessings, and the blessings that he brought to us.”

read more: