Jews in the White House

Jews in the White House
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Picture a long line of Jews waiting outside the White House, sweating in the merciless 90-degree sun.

That was the snapshot yesterday for those of us cooling our heels- or schvitzing in our heels, more accurately-before passing through the security kiosk and into the President's reception held in honor of Jewish Heritage Month. Few of the perspirers (myself included) could explain precisely what Jewish Heritage Month celebrates - let alone tell you who, in the rest of America, had any inkling that this commemoration was happening in May. But there was a distinct feeling among us that we'd been gathered for something significant and even-- I admit it occurred to me --potentially moving.

It was. Not because anything particularly powerful was said -- Obama's brief remarks were articulate, but won't be included in his pantheon of sermons.

It wasn't because the entertainment was rousing -- I liked singer Regina Spektor's edgy style, but it didn't touch a particularly Jewish chord.

And it wasn't because there were celebrities -- though there were: luminaries such as Sandy Koufax and Elena Kagan, whom many of us lesser lights made a sport of spotting across the room.

It was stirring because of the simple fact of what joined us all: we're Jews.
Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were there because they're Jews.
Director Mike Nichols was there because he's Jewish.
Author Judy Blume was there because she's a Jew.
Columnists Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen were there because they're Jewish.
And Senators Al Franken and Arlen Specter.
And Budget Director Peter Orszag.
And former Dophins quarterback Jay Fiedler.
These public figures don't advertise their background or even discuss it as much as some Jews wish, but their presence signaled a solidarity that was unmistakable and stirring on its face.
Outnumbering the VIP Jews were the full-time Jews - Debbie Friedman, whose songs are now fixed in the canon of Reform and Conservative synagogues, bestselling writer Rabbi Harold Kushner (When Bad Things Happen....) and many other esteemed clergy - some bearded, some in dresses, some in black hats, some in yarmulkes-normally divergent by denomination or political bent, but not yesterday; yesterday they were just Jews; Jews who made the guest list.
I don't want to suggest that it's enough just to invite our "People," serve us champagne, and give us a glimpse of The Man himself.
But it's also not nothing.
And there was some affecting, cumulative effect in seeing this group assembled -- with the President, First Lady, and Vice President in the front row.

Some snickered that this was simply an attempt to mollify those Jews who worry about Obama's commitment to Israel. Fair enough. But skepticism aside, there was something inarguably genuine about this Presidential nod to an indefatigable minority. It was an acknowledgment of a singular history and endurance, to a tiny group that has made disproportionate contributions.
I simply don't believe I was the only one who felt something.

The interior of the White House doesn't feel Jewish. There's a formality, stuffiness, and frankly, Republican-ness to the décor. It's not hamish -- homey or inviting. But yesterday, there was an unexpected warmth in the grand halls and gilded ballroom. The Jewish jokes flew fast and flippant during the cocktail time, (one rabbi joked that the miserable wait in the sun before the event was an anti-Semitic gesture), the guests played Jewish geography, and I ended up connecting with strangers, knowing we shared something ineffable and unshakable. The Obamas have already been touted for making the White House seem a little less "white bread," a little more relaxed. Maybe it was a token event, but it resonated.

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