Much of the convention buzz begins with the letter L

LOS ANGELES — "Maybe one day we'll say, 'And the Torah shall go forth from Pennsylvania Avenue,'" quipped an exultant Rabbi Marvin Hier, all but savoring the prospect of a first kosher kitchen in the White House.

"Isn't it ironic that Israel has never had an Orthodox prime minister, and here we may get an Orthodox vice president," said Hier, an Orthodox rabbi and dean of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I think Israelis are more shocked than Americans."

Jews across the religious and political spectrums are welcoming the choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice presidential candidate with near-unanimous pride and enthusiasm — at least on the record.

Here, where Democrats were gathered this week at their convention to crown Al Gore and Lieberman, the Jewish buzz about Lieberman was intense. And with the convention in their backyard, religious leaders in the area also had something to say about the first Jewish nominee to a major party ticket.

In both circles, some report an undercurrent of concern among Jews that Lieberman's high Jewish profile may prove a future embarrassment — "if things go wrong."

Lieberman's centrist politics and his criticism of Hollywood also bother some, but even outspoken liberals feel that the importance of electing the Democratic ticket overrides any nuances in ideological viewpoints.

Even though he might differ on certain issues, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a liberal and leader of the California delegation, praises Lieberman's "questioning mind" and willingness to try new approaches.

"I'm as much enthralled about what Joe Lieberman is and what he stands for" as "I am about the fact that he is a Jew," said Berman.

Mel Levine, one of Gore's top foreign policy advisers, said "I have known Joe Lieberman for at least 12 years. We don't agree on every issue, but I know of no more honorable man."

This chorus of praise is echoed by rabbinical leaders, regardless of Jewish affiliation — while they also note concern among their congregants.

None of the concerned, whether in the Democratic delegation or in a synagogue, wanted to air their worries on the record, said one leading party activist, because they don't want to hurt the Democratic ticket.

Many who are uneasy with the high Jewish visibility, because of fear of later retribution, represent an older generation, said Howard Welinsky, president of Democrats for Israel.

"Whether we like it or not, we have a higher profile in America than ever before, and there is nothing we can do about it, one way or the other," he said.

"It's very interesting that many Jews are so uncomfortable with 'Jew talk' and 'God talk,'" said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a local rabbi who is one of the most respected national voices in Conservative Judaism.

To some Jews, the very term "Orthodox" smacks of sectarianism and identification with the fervently religious, noted Schulweis.

"There is still a profound insecurity among many Jews…By contrast, many Christians feel quite at home with such talk and appreciate it in a sincere man," he said.

Rabbi Laura Geller, a Reform rabbi and liberal leader, said, "It is wonderful to bring a faith commitment to the political arena without blurring the distinction between church and state."

She agreed that those most uneasy about Lieberman are older Jews, who "reflect a world view that's dying. We've seen a profound change in attitude, so that we can be both Jews at home and Jews in the street."

To Hier of the Wiesenthal Center, fear of excessive Jewish visibility smacks of a ghetto mentality, while the choice of Lieberman is "the political equivalent of landing a man on the moon."

In the entertainment industry, both Jews and non-Jews have been grumbling about Lieberman's outspoken condemnation of the sex and violence depicted in Hollywood's products.

But even as staunch a liberal and Hollywood icon as Richard Dreyfuss agreed that his industry is far from blameless.

"I'm not upset by what Lieberman says," Dreyfuss noted, "as long as he doesn't ascribe all the world's sins to Hollywood."

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Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent