I was always under the impression that freshman congressman, much like children, should be seen and not heard. A goodly number of American Jews might well have agreed with me, given what transpired earlier this month, following an exchange of tweets, between two members of Congress. In response to a fellow Congressman from another political party tweeting: “It’s stunning, how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation, even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans,” the foreign born, newly elected congresswoman tweeted back: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” The Congresswoman was quoting a rap song from a quarter a century ago, which referred to hundred-dollar bills as “Benjamins”, in that Benjamin Franklin appears on the hundred-dollar bill.
Despite the brouhaha which erupted, accusing the congresswoman of anti-Semitism, prompting an immediate act of contrition on her part, I should like to point out that politics notwithstanding, the neophyte nabob was not entirely wrong.
Centuries before the congresswoman’s country of birth gained its independence, our ancestors in Eastern Europe were enriching our vocabulary with the following Yiddish aphorism: Der vos hot die mayess, hot die dayess. Translated into English, it reads: “whoever has the ‘hundreds’ has the right to express opinions.” While it is highly doubtful that our ancestors even knew who Benjamin Franklin was, much less had the remotest idea that Benjamin Franklin would appear on an American hundred-dollar bill, there is little, if any doubt, that our ancestors would have dismissed the yet to be born statement “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” as being anti-Semitic, in either spirit or tone. But then again, never in their wildest dreams, could our ancestors have envisioned a Jewish State that would come into being prior to the advent of the Messiah, just as never in their wildest dreams could our ancestors have envisioned a close bond that would develop between the “Goldeneh Medinah” and the “Yiddisheh Medinah.”
Towards the beginning of Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers, the sage Shimon the Tzaddik (righteous) taught us that “the world depends on three things: Torah (study), Service (worship), and acts of kindness.” Leave it to our Eastern European ancestors with their sardonic view of the world, to emend that teaching as follows: “the world rests on three things: Gelt (money), gelt (money), and gelt (money). Given the abject poverty that threatened the everyday existence of our shtetl dwelling bubbes and zeides, our ancestors’ predilection for “Benjamins” is most understandable. It was only logical therefore, that Tevye, the quintessential shtetl Jew in Fiddler on the Roof, would break out in song, as he begins to muse: “If I were a rich man.”
Among the many inventions that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of this country introduced into this world, was the bifocal. Two decades after Benjamin Franklin was taken from this world, a Lithuanian rabbi of renown, was able to direct our attention to the human eye as well. It was Rabbi Israel Lipkin, better known as the Salanter Rov or the Rabbi of Salant, who pointed out, that a small coin placed directly in front of the human eye will hide everything else from sight. Optics aside, if a small coin has the capability of blinding us to all else, one can only imagine the great power of the hundred-dollar bill, aka the Benjamin!
Short of human nature undergoing a profound metamorphosis, the task will fall to the all too precious few moralists in our society, who will continue to impress upon us that “money isn’t anything.” Unfortunately, there will be a good many in our culture, who will continue to maintain that “money is the only thing.” Like the newly elected Congresswoman, they will add their voices to the mantra, as they bleat: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!”