Jewish knowledge reaches deep into Howard Dean's past
MATTHEW E. BERGER
Jeiwsh Telegraphic Agency
n the•middle of a rowdy rendi-
tion of "I Have a Little Dreidel"
at the Sobelson family Chanukah
party, Howard Dean walks in
and declares himself the cantor.
The Democratic presidential candi-
date recites the blessings over the can-
dies in near-perfect Hebrew in a din-
ing room crowded with campaign
It's just a regular Chanukah for
Dean, the former Vermont governor
later says, "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.
Dean never considered converting to
Judaism, but the family did ponder the
prospect of joining the Reform syna-
gogue in Burlington, Vt.
The candidate's Jewish ties span a
college friendship with a Zionist
activist to frequent political appear-
ances at Vermont's synagogues to light-
ing the menorah and participating in
other Jewish rituals at home.
Dean asked the Sobelsons if he
could chant the Shehecheyanu blessing
for a first-of-the-season event, even
though it was the third night of
He got permission from Rachel
Sobelson, 19, his New Hampshire
campaign office manager, who said it
was "the first night that Howard Dean
is at the house."
The candidate stopped by the
Manchester Jewish Federation on Dec.
21 to pass out Chanukah presents for
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 its blocking a bike path.
Born on 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
His first connection with the Jewish
community came at Yale University in
1967. He became friends with David
Berg, a fellow student who was a for-
mer president of Young Judaea.
"Howard was unusually interested,
respectful and accepting of that whole
part of who I was," Berg, a psycholo-
gist in New Haven, Conn., said from
Burlington, where he was visiting his
daughter, a staffer on the campaign,
and the Deans, with whom he spent
In college, Dean was unafraid to dis-
cuss Middle Eastern politics in the
tumultuous period following the 1967
Their friendship developed over the
years, and Berg counseled Dean on his
interactions with the Jewish communi-
ty — for instance, when he attended
the Albert Einstein College of
Medicine in New York and married a
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
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
chatted amiably with congregants
about how hard it was for Burlington's
Orthodox shul to get a minyan until
Chabad-Lubavitch came to town.
When Dean began to date his future
wife, Judith Steinberg, Berg broached
the issue of intermarriage.
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.
But 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."
Judith Steinberg, who Dean says is
and his home.
Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New ersey endorses Howard Dean.
not political at all," has given few
interviews and does not campaign with
The Deans began their medical prac-
tice in Vermont. The couple has two
children: Annie, who is studying at
Yale, and Paul, who is a senior in high
"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
Neither child had a bar or bat mitz-
vah or much formal Jewish education,
but both identify themselves 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
Dean, then lieutenant governor, was
thrust into the governor's office in
1991 with the sudden death of Gov.
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.
Dean 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 funda-
mental moral principles are very simi-
lar between Judaism and Christianity."
Dean says he does not attend church
often, but prays every day.
"The thing that I like the most
about Christianity is the idea that Jesus
sought out those people who were left
behind — the lepers, the prostitutes,
the Samaritans that were cast aside," he
said. "And that's kind of what I think
the mission of the Democratic Party is
in some ways." ri
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