In the wake of Sen. John McCain’s passing, many commentators have eulogized his complex political and personal legacy, situating the man in the sweep of American history. But amid all the somber and serious commemoration, it’s worth remembering McCain as he lived, not just as he died. And few moments better illustrate the senator’s spirit than his hilarious roast of his close friend Sen. Joe Lieberman upon the latter’s retirement.
Speaking at a bipartisan farewell celebration on Nov. 29, 2012, at the Israeli Embassy, McCain opened with the surprise announcement that he would be converting to Judaism. This was not because he’d had some theological epiphany. Rather, McCain explained, it was that given how many Jewish dictates he’d already been forced to observe while spending time with Lieberman—an Orthodox Jew—he figured he should just make it official. “I do this not because of any particular liking for the religion,” he declared, “it’s just that I’ve had to for so many years put up with all the bullshit … that I might as well convert.”
McCain went on to list his pet peeves about religious Jewish life, like Shabbat elevators, which are programmed to stop automatically on every floor so Sabbath-observant Jews can use them without having to push any of the electronic buttons. “Any of you ever been on a Shabbat elevator?” McCain asked. “It takes you a goddamn half an hour to get anywhere!”
“If there’s anything I never see again in my life, I will die a happy man, it’s salmon,” he went on. “Why at every fucking kosher meal do we have to have salmon? I’d like to have a round of applause tonight because we didn’t have salmon.”
McCain discussed walking Lieberman home in the frigid Washington winter after votes on Shabbat—as Lieberman would not drive—and also recalled how he once fell asleep on a shared plane ride to Munich, only to wake up and discover Lieberman standing there wrapped in a shawl for the morning prayer. “I thought maybe I’d died,” he said, adding that he now knows more about the religion and even some Hebrew.
When Lieberman got his turn to speak, he quipped: “John, your entry into the covenant was a lot less painful than mine.”
Listen to the full roast below:
It’s an exchange that’s not just notable for its laughs, but for how it reflected McCain’s openness to traditions and people outside his own experience. That active interest in others is no doubt how he was able to forge genuine relationships with everyone from Orthodox Jews to imperiled Syrians. And it goes a long way toward explaining why McCain has been remembered so fondly even by those who vehemently disagreed with his politics.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.