Feinstein offers rare peek into her Jewish heritage

LOS ANGELES — Whether it's to protect her privacy or because the issue is largely irrelevant to her political campaigns, Sen. Dianne Feinstein rarely talks about her Jewishness.

However, the perfectly coifed San Franciscan let down her hair a little when she observed last month that "seeing the Kosovo refugees is a chilling reminder of what it means to be a Jew.

"If, like my grandparents, I had been born in Germany or Russia, I would likely have perished in the Holocaust."

California's senior senator was the inaugural speaker in the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture series at the University of Southern California's recently established Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life.

The topic of her talk was "The Jewish Ethic and the Public Arena: How Do They Mesh?" But Feinstein, who is due to run for re-election next year, concentrated her comments mainly on current foreign and domestic politics — to the chagrin of some Republican listeners.

She did, however, give the audience some measure of how far she as a Jewish woman, and American society, have come in her lifetime.

She recalled that her father had been the first Jewish doctor at the UCSF School of Medicine and that she herself, as a straight-A student, had been turned down by all private prep schools in San Francisco.

As a result, she attended both a Catholic convent school and a Jewish Sunday school. "If you can't beat them, then confuse them," she joked.

Both as a Jew with a commitment to social justice and as a centrist Democrat, Feinstein said last month that she fully backed President Clinton's current policy in Yugoslavia, even if it eventually means sending in ground troops.

"If the 19 NATO countries do not stop the genocide in Kosovo, it would send a green light to every tyrant in the world," she said.

This week, however, Feinstein had a change of mind following the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

In a KCBS-Radio interview, the senator said she believed "the mission ought to be brought to an end." Feinstein later toned down her stand, issuing a statement that called on NATO to reasess its decision to bomb urban areas.

During last month's speech, Feinstein alluded to her struggles as a female politician only once, in recalling that when she was elected mayor of San Francisco she received a congratulatory telegram from the female mayor of Ottawa.

To succeed in politics, the Canadian mayor advised, "a women must be twice as good as a man," adding, "Fortunately, that's not very difficult."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent