PRESENTING PRESIDENTS DAY

It’s none of my business how you celebrated Presidents Day earlier this week, if at all. However, as an American Jew, I would suggest that aside from Presidents Day, in addition to Presidents Day, or as an augmentation to Presidents Day, there be a Presidents Day with another “twist”. For those of us who are strong supporters of Israel, for those of us who realize that ever since May 1948, no two American presidents have viewed Israel from the same perspective, much less have been supportive of Israel in the same way, I believe that it is important for us to celebrate American Presidents who have either extended themselves to the Jewish people, the Jewish State, or both.

I would expect that the Hebrew word “ Todah” is known to a good many American Jews. Permit me to introduce a synonym, “Hakarot HaTov” ( Hakorress HaTov for those such as I who continue to insist on pronouncing certain Hebrew words with the inflection and intonation of the shtetl). Literally, it means recognition of the good. A much better translation would be “gratitude”.  For those who have much love for and a great deal of pride in this country, I strongly suggest that each year, come Presidents Day, we look back on two or three Presidents for whom we American Jews owe a HaKorress HaTov. From a non-partisan, purely subjective point of view,  I suggest the following three presidential candidates.

Despite urging and “sound” advice from Secretary of State George Marshall, President Harry S. Truman reluctantly agreed to a meeting with his old business partner Eddie Jacobson, provided that Jacobson not raise the topic of the soon to be proclaimed  Jewish State. Just one look at his fellow Kansan standing in the Oval Office with tears streaming down his cheeks, and Chaim Weizmann in tow, the President vociferated: “You win, you bald-headed s*n-of-a-b**ch.”  A mere 5 ½ years later, when introduced to the leadership of Conservative Judaism as the man who helped create the State of Israel,” Truman retorted, “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”

Fifty-two years ago, last month, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visited LBJ at the Johnson ranch, here in Texas. Armed with an extensive shopping list to replenish the depleted Israel Airforce and Army (France was no longer a patron of Israel) after the miraculous successes of the Six-Day War, the Israeli Prime Minister received pretty much what he asked for from the American President. When it came to Israel, the word “no” was simply not part of President Johnson’s vocabulary. Perhaps LBJ summed up his relationship best when speaking with Arthur Goldberg, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, less than 2 months  following Eshkol’s visit: “I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel.” A great speaker, President Johnson wasn’t. But perhaps his most prescient and memorable words to the Jewish community, soon after he assumed the presidency in November 1963, were: “You have lost a very great friend (his predecessor, J.F.K.) But you have found a better one.”

I have no idea who coined the phrase “only in America”. I do know, however, that for decades it was frequently uttered by previous generations of Jews in this country who extolled the virtues of these United States. Arguably, that phrase never rang truer than during the second week of October 1973. Caught unprepared, the IDF was fighting for its life, as it was attacked by Egypt on Yom Kippur Day. Aside from mounting casualties, the Israeli Air Force and Army were dangerously low in equipment that had been destroyed by the enemy. While Henry Kissinger, the Jewish Secretary of State procrastinated when it came to rearmament (in his view a bruised and bloodied Israel would have far less of its trademark chutzpah in peace talks with its Arab neighbors, once a truce was put into place) a Quaker President known for occasional tirades against Jews, stepped in, took control and overruled Kissinger. As President Nixon recalled: “When I was informed that there was disagreement in the Pentagon about which kind of plane should be used for the airlift, I became totally exasperated. I said to Kissinger, “Goddam it, use every one we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.” Within hours, American cargo-configured aircraft, packed to the gills, were airborne headed for Israel.

Come Presidents Day, may log cabins and cherry trees always be part of our collective past. Come Presidents Day, may American Jews reflect on Presidents who serve to remind us how truly blessed we are, living in this country. 

ONE GIANT LEAP

A linguist, I’m not. I am however intrigued by two Hebrew words used for that waxing and waning disc that appears up in the sky each night. As we make note of the fact that this Saturday marks exactly half a century since Neil Armstrong broadcast: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” to a television watched by riveted, spell bound American people, I should like to pay respect an honor to that earth shaking historic event by focusing on two Hebrew words, Yareach and Levanah.

Although no mention of either word is made in the creation story – the moon is simply referred to the smaller luminary in contradistinction to the sun which is referred to as the larger luminary – both Yareach and Levanah are deserving of our stargazing.
Yareach and Levanah are concepts, albeit of a totally different nature. Yareach  connotes time. When taking, a female captive, a spoil of war, we are commanded to permit her to cry (mourn) for yerach yamim or thirty days, as she mourns being wrested from her father and mother (Deuteronomy 21:13). Levanah, on the other hand, connotes color. Lavan is the Hebrew word for white. It does not take much imagination to visualize our ancestors looking up and seeing a white “disc” set against the background of a black sky. Conceptually, Yareach is imperceptible (try to define “a long, long time”) while Levanah (provided the individual is blessed with sight) is perceptible. For one celebrating and appreciating the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing, perhaps time should be taken to ponder, whether Neil Armstrong walked on the Yareach or the Levanah?

In addition to telling us about a celestial creation, Yareach and Levanah tell us about ourselves. Among the many offhanded phrases, used by us in our culture is “make time.” We can set aside time, we can and unfortunately all too often “kill time,” but we cannot “make time.” Time is gifted and assigned to us by HaShem. Time is a stark reminder of our mortality. For those of us who are productive, each day is a race against time; for the religious among us, time serves as an invitation or a challenge beckoning us to use it wisely and productively, so that we ultimately leave this world and particularly our little world in better shape than we found it. When it comes to time, it is up to us, how to make use of the time that we have been allotted. Yareach reminds us that as humans, we are limited. Levanah is totally different. Because it connotes color, Levanah is a gentle reminder that the sky is the limit, when it comes to our resources and ability. Because new colors  are being created all the time, they are limitless. So too is our ability to continue to grow emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Less than a decade after President Kennedy proposed that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,”  Neil Armstrong landed on the Yareach. Only time will tell how much closer the gap remains between us and the Levanah.

Unlike English, the Hebrew language is gender sensitive. Nouns are either masculine or feminine It ought to be noted, that Yareach is a masculine noun, while Levanah is feminine.  Just as Eve was created to complete and complement Adam, perhaps the same can be said about Yareach and Levanah. Independently, each has an aura all its own. Yet, an interdependence must exist for Yareach and Levanah  to truly shine. With that interdependence, there is harmony between that which is imperceptible (time) and that which is perceptible (color). Interdependence between Levanah and Yareach, helps us distinguish between that which is beyond our control, from that which is within our control. Interdependence reminds us that in and of themselves, Yareach and Levanah are woefully incomplete. Yareach and Levanah need the other to truly shine.

As America celebrates that small step taken by Neil Armstrong fifty years ago, as America gratefully recalls that concomitant  giant leap for this country and the rest of the world, come Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat, I invite you to step outside and look up at a Yareach  and Levanah that is full, in more ways than one.

SINS OF THE FATHER

“The die has long since been cast; the fight will take place. The Jews with their backs to the sea, fighting for their very homes, with 101 percent morale, will accept no compromise.”

These words were written mere weeks before Israeli independence was declared and its people having to fight for their very existence in the concomitant War of Independence.

Contrary to one may think, these were not the words of Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion or any of the other founders of the nascent state. These words were penned by a 22-year-old reporter for the Boston Post. Encouraged by his father to travel overseas, but ignoring his father’s advice to steer clear of trouble, a young Bobby Kennedy boarded a flight from Cairo to what was then Lydda airport. It was during that trip to Israel, that the young reporter met with both the Irgun and Haganah (he was actually kidnapped, blindfolded and interrogated by Haganah agents before being released a short time afterwards.)

Two decades later, when Bobby was seeking the presidential nomination, he accompanied Rabbi Shmuel Shrage to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “Is there anything, Mr. Kennedy can do for you, in return for the blessing you gave him?” Rabbi Shrage asked the Rebbe. “Yes,” answered the Rebbe. “There are two Jews sitting in jail in the Soviet Union for spreading Judaism. If Mr. Kennedy can get them released and brought to this country, it would be a great thing.” After a couple of weeks, Bobby Kennedy called Rabbi Shrage. “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can get them out of jail and even out of Russia. The bad news is that I can’t get them into the United States.” Rabbi Shrage was incredulous! The former U.S. Attorney General was able to get the two Jews out of Russia but unable to bring them into the United States (most likely because of anti-Semitism of some individuals in the State Department.) Rabbi Shrage contacted the State Department and threatened them with a media campaign. A short time thereafter, those two Jews were safe and sound on American soil.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Senator Kennedy’s assassination, having been felled by a bullet by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian resident of Silwan in East Jerusalem. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan chose to kill the presidential aspirant on that exact date of June 5th, because it coincided with the first anniversary of Israel’s stunning victory of the Six Day war. Bobby Kennedy was targeted by the twenty-four-year-old Palestinian, because of Senator Kennedy’s unabashed support for Israel. As such, Bobby Kennedy was the first American victim of modern Arab terrorism.

There is little doubt that any number of Jewish newspapers in this country will carry stories about Senator Kennedy. What really ought to be remembered about Bobby Kennedy as far as I am concerned, is not his support for Israel per se (Lyndon Johnson will also be remembered as a great friend to Israel, as will Richard Nixon,) but his support for Israel and his friendship toward Jews in light of his upbringing.

Raised as the son of Joseph Kennedy, Bobby, no different than his older brother John, as well as his other 7 siblings was weaned on anti-Semitic sentiments and comments. Old Joe Kennedy’s dislike for Jews (yes, David Sarnoff was among Joe Kennedy’s best friends. Having a “good Jew” among your coterie of friends is not in any way unusual for anti-Semites. In no way do such anti-Semites see the dichotomy in this,) was legendary. I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. It would seem to me that the vast majority of us are products of our upbringing. Quite often beliefs, mores and behaviors are passed along from generation to generation. Conversely, to be have been raised in such an atmosphere and have the temerity to eschew one’s parent’s belief  because it is simply wrong is the sign of an exceptional human being – all the more so if that parent is still alive. Recall if you will, that Bobby predeceased his father by 16 months.

No doubt, many in this country will remember Bobby Kennedy as one who cared for his fellow human being and dared to make a difference where injustices were addressed and wrongs were righted. Even though sins of the father quite often fall on the children, I would hope and pray that Bobby Kennedy is remembered as one who showed us that in his case, sins of the father fall by the wayside.