May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Yeah, we didn’t know about it either.
It’s a new date on the calendar, declared by President Bush in May 2006, to honor the 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture. Now Jews have a place in the firmament of celebrations of racial and ethnic diversity, alongside African Americans (February), Irish Americans (March), Italian Americans (October) and so on. This is actually a big deal. It took years of lobbying, with former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida leading the effort.
So no wonder Wasserman Schultz, recently named to lead the Democratic National Committee, played such a happy, starring role at the now-annual reception for Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House on May 17. While President Bush issued the declaration, President Obama has taken it up a notch, by hosting 300 or so Jews from around the country two years in a row.
The first reception had lots of star power — Sandy Koufax! — and lots of fireworks, such as when Helen Thomas was recorded saying some pretty nasty things about Jews as she left the White House. This year’s event was sedate by comparison, but noteworthy all the same.
“I love how at home we feel,” remarked Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as he surveyed the room full of rabbis, communal leaders, activists, donors and a few journalists. The all-male a cappala group from Yeshiva University, the Maccabeats, performed Hebrew songs while United States Senators talked animatedly and guests paid homage to Elie Wiesel.
Indeed, the nomenclature of this month is significant. It’s not named for American Jews, but rather Jewish Americans — a designation that makes it clear that “American” is the noun and “Jewish” is the adjective. It’s both a signal that we’ve arrived and, as the president spoke amidst the classic beauty of White House walls covered with paintings of his predecessors, a reminder of the potential of this country to absorb and celebrate difference.
And did we mention that, as the afternoon grew later and the crowd thinned, the Maccabeats could be seen standing in the corner, facing east and davening mincha?