Sunday, December 16, 2012

Being a Jew in America

This separation of church and state thing is really pretty terrific, if it's allowed to function properly. For too long a time, we Jews were kept out of many areas of endeavor in the world, and even in this country until not too terribly long ago (read "A Gentleman's Agreement," written in the 1940s, if you need a reminder). Quotas in universities, doors closed to country clubs, housing covenants to keep out all those undesirables (us among them). And today we feel truly a part of the American fabric. Hanukkah lighting in the White House. Pretty cool. Passover seder in the spring. Also very cool. A warm recognition that we Jews have something significant to contribute to the American experience, not unlike those of all the other minorities that make up our country's patchwork quilt.

I kind of knew all that, but occasionally I need to remember that things truly are changing.

I think back to the mid-90s. A group of Conservative rabbis journeyed to Washington for a Rabbinic Lobby Day. We met as a group, then went to the offices of our various senators and representatives to speak about the issues that confronted our particular areas in the country. Somewhere or other I have a picture of me with Senator Joseph Lieberman, who was the senator from the state where I was serving a small community. I remember running up and down the staircases of the various office buildings and being so frustrated that my colleagues were so goal-oriented - they/we were under a time constraint and had to get to where we were going. But oh, that building was so beautiful! The wooden railings, the paintings on the walls, the seal of the U.S. Senate on the wall of the tram we took from one building to another. And hey, guys, all this is OURS! It was a real gosh-and-golly visit for me, but the highlight, without doubt, was our morning prayer service on Monday.

We met in hearing chamber - I'd like to say House hearing chamber but I'm not sure whether it was the House or the Senate - 30ish rabbis convened to discharge our obligation to God before we headed off to exercise our rights as Americans to speak to our representatives as Jews. We wrapped ourselves in tallit and tefilin, and one of our group, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, stepped forward to lead the service.

I remember looking around at the room. Old Glory on standards on either end of the seats where the members of Congress sat. A portrait of the president. And us. There were no police, no soldiers, no one glowering over our shoulders to make sure we weren't fomenting rebellion (you know those trouble-making Jews, after all). We were in that room because we had asked permission, as any group would, and had been given it. And on public land, we met as Jews to sing our prayers to God. Our leader opted not to have us go through typical repetition so that we could use our time more for singing prayers that are usually mumbled. It was a glorious morning, and I never felt more proud to be a Jew and an American than in that room.

Then there was today. Twenty minutes ago, to be exact. A colleague had been among those invited to a Hanukkah party given by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida. Ambassador Michael Oren of Israel was there. My classmate Rabbi Larry Bazer had officiated at the lighting of a Hanukkiyah at the White House, and now the festivities had moved on to Rep. Wasserman-Schultz's office. The West Point Jewish Choir (did you even know this thing existed???) was slated to sing. But Ambassador Oren brought with him three members of the Israel Defense Force Ensemble, a musical group, and without rehearsal the two groups joined in singing Hatikvah (Israel's national anthem) and Jerusalem of Gold. I don't know about anyone else, but for me it was a three-kleenex moment.* And while I wept, I reflected.

Jews at West  Point. A Jewish choir at West Point. Jews in Congress. A Hanukkiyah at the White House. Sixty years ago, had I predicted such a thing, my grandparents would have scoffed. And yet there we were. And those young people were just beautiful.

There's only one thing left: a Jew in the White House.

OK, so I'm being greedy. But do you remember when Joe Lieberman was tapped by Al Gore as his running mate in 2000? And Hadassah Lieberman raised eyebrows (and blood pressure) by observing that "now she felt like she truly belonged"? Many felt so uncomfortable by her remarks, but I got it. Born in this country to parents who'd grown up here but were born elsewhere, I still got it, and unless you've walked in the shoes of an immigrant Jew, you won't get it.

You know who does get it? Ask any African American in this post-Obama country how they felt in 2008. That's what it means to truly belong.

I will cherish these moments of melding of my American and my Jewish identities. I will celebrate the fact that as a Jew I am no longer invisible on the national stage, no longer excluded, no longer suspect (take that, U.S. Grant). I will thank God for all the good that this country offers to my community.

I just hope one of these days I will get to vote for someone with my communal memories with the same fervor and gratitude with which I voted for Barack Obama.

*If you're interested, the video is at

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