"So… Wot's it Like?"*

Thursday May 27th is a typical DC summer day: hot, humid as a sauna, and threatening rain.
What wasn’t typical were the 200 or so Jewish guests of the White House. Although President George W. Bush established May as Jewish Heritage Month in 2007, this was the first time the White House hosted an event to honor it. Jewschool was honored to be apparently the only Jewish blog invited (as press, anyhow. The basement of the White House is really quite basement-y. In any case, there may have been others, but we were the only ones attending, as far as I could tell…)
A curious mix of guests included an odd emphasis on sports figures, including Dara Torres and Zoe Taylor (youngest member of the national telemark team)… and the great Sandy Koufax, still mentioned whenever there is need of a model Jewish sports figure, perhaps because unfortunately, in these days, few Jewish sports figures will distinguish themselves by refusing to play on Yom Kippur – as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL (also present) commented to me, Koufax was perhaps one of the greatest rabbis in America for that act. A thought worth considering.

In President Obama’s remarks, he noted, “This is a pretty — pretty fancy group here, pretty distinguished group. We’ve got senators and representatives. We’ve got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes — and Sandy Koufax. ”
Although he didn’t mention it explicitly, among those entrepreneurs was another group whom the President also invited: Those Jews who are entrepreneurs for social justice.
It was curious that although in his remarks, President Obama spoke of Jewish struggles against injustice as a model to all Americans, and explicitly mentioned women’s rights, workers’ equality and anti-racism, as well as the now ubiquitous citation of Tikkun Olam, President Obama did not specifically speak to the many social justice entrepreneurs in the room. Perhaps it was because the President was speaking to two audiences: one present, and one reading his remarks after the fact. In those remarks, those among us who take Judaism today as a religion for once a week, or less, whose Judaism is easy: bagels and lox, or challah and kiddush, who doesn’t support feminism, or workers’ rights, can read him as speaking to the glorious Jewish past, a past which is unthreatening because it is in the past.
So I am grateful that the president, in inviting (among others!!) Rabbi Sharon Brous and Shawn Landres, Eli Winkelman and of course, Madam Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, President Obama can perhaps remind us that the past is prelude, that in being an or l’goyim – a light unto the nations, the responsibility continues to be required of us to live as Jews, and in doing so, to not only give money to causes, not only to mouth the values of tikkun olam, to not only talk about democracy in Israel, but to occasionally risk everything: even one’s livelihood, one’s opportunities, to say “because I am a Jew, I will not participate in something that I do not support,” or ” because I am a Jew, I will not be silent, until this wrong is righted.”
That may mean to speak about Israel, or racism, or poverty; the plight of illegal immigrants in the USA and Arizona, the violence of several nations in Africa; it may also mean to speak within our communities and remind people that Judaism is not only about “tikkun olam,” but also about engaging with the Divine through our obligations to God. For people do forget that Sandy Koufax, in refusing to play on Yom Kippur wasn’t making a show: he could have lost everything. And, as long as we are reminded that we have a great obligation to live up to, well, that is a heritage worth celebrating. For that, President Obama, thanks for the reminder that shul isn’t the only place where rabbis teach, and thank you Mr. Koufax.
* Yes, That would be a Monty Python reference.
Remarks follow:
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release May 27, 2010
East Room
4:27 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello, hello! Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.) Everybody, thank you. Please have a seat. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. It is wonderful to see all of you, and I am proud to welcome you to the first ever event held at the White House to honor Jewish American Heritage Month. (Applause.)
This is a pretty — pretty fancy group here, pretty distinguished group. We’ve got senators and representatives. We’ve got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes — and Sandy Koufax. (Applause.) Sandy and I actually have something in common — we are both lefties. (Laughter.) He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur; I can’t pitch. (Laughter.)
I’m looking forward to the reading by Rabbi Alyssa Stanton, the performance by Regina Spektor.
I know that my Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, wanted to be here but, as some of you know, he is in Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of his son.
The diversity of talents and accomplishments represented in this room underscores the vast contributions that Jewish Americans have made to this country. Of course, it’s impossible to separate the achievements of Jewish Americans from the struggles of Jewish people around the world. Even before we were a nation, we were a sanctuary for Jews seeking to live without the specter of violence or exile. That’s what drew a band of 23 Jewish refugees to a place called New Amsterdam more than 350 years ago. That’s what brought Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms on a long journey to America in the last turn of the century. And that’s what led Holocaust survivors and Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain to travel to these shores to rebuild their lives.
As Jews sought freedom and opportunity in America, these waves of immigrants and generations that followed have helped to make America what it is — richer, stronger, more prosperous — from the discoveries of Jonas Salk to the pioneering work of Albert Einstein; from the music of Irving Berlin to the poetry of Emma Lazarus. And then there are the countless names that we don’t know — the teachers, the small business owners, the doctors and nurses, the people who seek only to live honestly and faithfully and to give their children more than they had. Jewish Americans have always been a critical part of the American story.
These contributions have not always been embraced. Jewish communities have at times faced hardship and hostility -– right here in the United States of America — a reminder that we have to respond at all times swiftly and firmly whenever bigotry rears its ugly head. But no matter what the obstacles, Jewish Americans have endured –- learning from each other, leaning on each other, true to their faith, leaning on the values that have been associated for so long with Jewish history: a sense of community, a sense of moral purpose, and an ethic of responsibility.
So it’s heartening to know that these are the enduring values of a history marked by so much tragedy –- not cynicism or despair, not callous indifference. Every person in this room knows somebody –- perhaps a mother or father, an aunt, an uncle, perhaps yourself –- who exemplifies this heritage. Every person in this room stands at the end of an unbroken chain of perseverance –- of a conviction that a better future is possible — that doesn’t just offer a lesson to Jewish Americans. It offers a lesson to all Americans. And ultimately, that is what we are celebrating today.
Yes, Jewish Americans have garnered success in industry and in government -– as we can see by the guests gathered here today. Yes, Jews have helped to pioneer incredible advances in science and medicine, across countless fields. But the contributions of the Jewish community to America run deeper. As a product of history and faith, Jewish Americans have helped to open our eyes to injustice, to people in need, and to the simple idea that we ought to recognize ourselves in the struggles of our fellow men and women.
That’s what’s led Jewish advocates to fight for women’s equality and workers’ rights. That’s what led rabbis to preach against racism from the bimah -– and to lead congregants on marches and protests to stop segregation. And that is what helped lead America to recognize and support Israel as a Jewish homeland and a beacon for democratic values -– beginning mere minutes after its independence was declared. In fact, we have the original statement by President Harry Truman on display here today.
So what we are called upon to do now is to continue to live up to those values as a nation -– to continue to uphold the principle of “tikkun olam” — our obligation to repair the world. Here at home, at a time of continuing struggle for millions of families, it is incumbent upon us to remain focused not only on rebuilding our economy but rebuilding it stronger than before. And I’d note that our efforts are bolstered by the work of so many Jewish organizations that help the sick and educate our children and provide assistance to seniors and others in need.
But our responsibility doesn’t end at the water’s edge. That’s why my administration is renewing American leadership around the world –- strengthening old alliances and forging new ones, defending universal values while ensuring that we uphold our values here at home. In fact, it’s our common values that leads us to stand with allies and friends, including the state of Israel. That’s why, even as we never waver in pursuing peace —
(pager beeps) — that happens to me all the time. (Laughter.)
That is why even as we never waver in pursuing peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs, our bond with Israel is unbreakable. (Applause.) It is the bond of two peoples that share a commitment to a common set of ideals: opportunity, democracy and freedom.
Those ideals are what have drawn generations to these shores. Those ideals are what have allowed Jewish immigrants to seek a better life in America -– while enriching the life of our country. And those ideals are what you and all Jewish Americans continue to help us uphold each and every day.
So thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
END 4:36 P.M. EDT

6 thoughts on “"So… Wot's it Like?"*

  1. That is just so depressing. The remarks and commentary remind me of Maskilim paying lip service to the Czar and the Czar returning some in kind. May we remember Sholem Schwartzbard in these grim moments. A gitn shabbos oyf aykh un oyf kol yisroel.

  2. I have a follow up question re that social justice discussion we had a few days back. Does working towards pluralistic societies in Arab countries – which is not merely a moral interest, but one that with security implications for the MidEast and the world at large – count as social justice?

  3. It Depends, as always. Does one genuinely believe that men and women in the Arab world should live lives free of oppression of all forms, including economic oppression? Or is one motivated by a shrewd self-interest in promoting societies that would be friendly towards the West?
    Until people in the mainstream start promoting human rights in Superfriend states Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I’m not holding my breath on the former.

  4. @David,
    Because I didn’t slam Obama. Der. I mean he certainly deserves it for having a White House event to celebrate Jewish American heritage. I mean we should take every opportunity, no matter how innocuous. I mean, he did just honor us for our commitments to social justice, that’s a good opportunity to slam, isn’t it? After all, he didn’t use the platform to fix every problem we might have with him (and nevermind that who knows whether we even agree on what those problems are. I would bet I think they’re different than boymlpisher does).

  5. BBN, I don’t think there need to be tension between those two goals. I believe in the value of pluralistic societies, both in preserving the rights of their citizens, and in best preserving the rights of their neighbors to live in peace.
    Bush had it half right. After 9/11, he thought elections would give Afghans and Arabs a stake in their nations, which would transform them instantly into responsible stakeholders in the international system. Their democracy would solve our security problems. The problem, as we found out in Gaza and Lebanon, was that elections in unpluralistic societies can strengthen the most extremist, illiberal forces, which serves neither their people, nor our security. Building pluralistic societies should be the goal, where the rights (and lives) of minority groups and opinions are respected, and only then holding elections.

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