by Sam Glaser
As Thanksgiving rolls around, I’ve been reflecting on just why it is that turkey and Thanksgiving are both called hodu in Hebrew, and what comes to mind is how much we Jews in America have to be grateful for and how our destinies are intertwined. Thanks to the wisdom of fathers of the constitution, Jews were given a sanctuary in the West where they could flourish in freedom. As a people, we are living proof of the power of free markets, access to education and social mobility. My grandpa came to this country as a penniless teenager from a “one-horse town” in Transylvania. In the very next generation his three sons rose to prominence: a graduate from Harvard Law, a garment industry tycoon and an attorney/opera impresario. As remarkable as our family saga is, we are certainly not alone. This past year on my concert tour I enjoyed an eye-opening view of the depth of this symbiotic relationship between the Land of the Free and the People of the Book.
Last Purim it was my daughter Sarah’s turn to join me on a business trip. My travels took me to Philly for a few shows in Mainline and Yardley and I made sure we had a full day to do fun stuff in between. The natural thing to do in the city of brotherly love is to run the Rocky Steps,
visit Independence Hall and for us kosher consumers, hit the vegan dim sum place downtown. One thing that I didn’t expect was to be embraced by the Jewish angle everywhere we turned. Sure, the Liberty Bell quotes our Torah, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land…” but the full realization of our contribution was apparent after visiting the two most prominent tourist traps in the center of town. One is the hi-tech Constitution Center where Jewish ideology is credited in guiding the vision of our founding fathers. They were deeply religious men that took their cues from the bible and even considered making Hebrew the national tongue. Some of the tourists, upon seeing my kippah stated: “we love the Jewish people” or “we stand with Israel.” Of course the Jews that stopped us said, “oh, do you know ‘so and so’ from Sherman Oaks?” We saw exhibits that listed prominent Jews in government, building the economy and marching for civil rights. I could see the pride in Sarah’s fifth-grade eyes as she looked for clues of her heritage in this beautifully realized testimony to our grand American democratic experiment.
Across the street is the spanking new National Museum of American Jewish History. It’s a stunning 100,000 square foot, five story, state-of-the-art nachas factory for members of the tribe. We began the historical journey on the fourth floor in the mid-1600’s and emerged a few hours later in the present day where we pondered Irving Berlin’s piano, Spielberg’s films and Sandy Koufax’s mitt. I think this multimedia exploration of Jewish accomplishment should be mandatory viewing for all Americans; anti-Semitic bias fades in the light of contributions we’ve made or the degree in which Judaism has informed this country’s values. My Reform friends shared our enthusiasm at the intense degree of Jewish pride furnished by the experience. My Orthodox friends shuddered in horror at the $100 million plus bill that otherwise could have financed Philly Jewish day schools for perpetuity.
Fast forward from Purim to Yom Ha-ki-Purim. I had the great thrill of introducing my family to the wonder of Washington DC during my new gig leading High Holidays at Temple Emanuel in Virginia Beach. Rosh Hashana weekend coincided with the annual VB end of summer Neptune Festival. Our mile long walk to shul along the beach boardwalk took us through a busy art festival with live rock and roll on every third block. Hundreds of food stands beckoned with treif delights. My daughter remarked, “so much food and nothing’s kosher?” Sure enough, at the end of grub row was the Sabra booth where handsome young Israelis danced around while distributing free chumus and pita chips! Halleluyah!
With a week to wander Virginia before Yom Kippur I guided my family on a historic journey to Colonial Williamsburg and then continued north through Richmond up to our friend’s home in Potomac. For kids from LA where “really old stuff” is from the 1960’s, visiting these 1700’s neighborhoods was quite a treat. Well in advance of the trip I worked hard to assemble an overflowing itinerary and booked the various sights with the help of my congressman, Henry Waxman. He was able to secure for us tours of the galleries of Senate and Congress and the Supreme Court, plus a “never tell me the odds” moment: we won the lottery to obtain the rare ticket into the White House where we enjoyed a personal tour from the resident military officers and we met the Obama’s dog, Bo! Following that, my best buddy Chuck’s brother, who is a captain in the Navy, welcomed us for a two-hour insider view of the Pentagon.
One cannot visit DC and not hit the requisite monuments: we marveled at the Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, WWII and Vietnam memorials and witnessed the beautiful new Martin Luther King statue the week of it’s public unveiling. Yes, we got to know the underground Metro very well. Finally, we powered the museums: Holocaust, National Gallery, American Art, Portrait Gallery, National Sculpture Garden, Natural History and last but not least,
our favorite, the Spy Museum! We went bowling, shopped in trendy Georgetown, visited Chinatown and the historic 6th and I synagogue, hiked to the spectacular Great Falls National Park and somehow did all this in four whirlwind days.
I’m reporting this travelogue to my dear readers not so you pity my exhausted children, but to highlight the Jewish presence in our nation’s capitol. One obvious landmark is the National Museum of the Holocaust, perhaps the most compelling testimony to the horror of Nazism on the planet. My point is that this museum isn’t hidden in a JCC. It’s one of the nineteen official Smithsonian museums and 90% of the attendees are not Jewish. Not only are we Jews free to pursue our faith in this country, but also on that imposing central mall, we occupy a place of honor, geographically and spiritually. The Smithsonian art galleries feature Chagall and Modigliani right up there with the Monets and Renoirs. We watched senators in action and my kids marveled that the two representatives from our state are proud Jewish women. By chance (is it ever really chance?) during our half hour in the Congressional gallery, the bill on the floor was an attempt by LA big business to do away with Clean Air Act provisions and was being challenged by our MOT, Congressman Waxman. Even the Spy Museum had a healthy helping of tales of the Mossad and sadly,
displays describing Jonathan Pollard and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. A few blocks from the Lincoln Memorial lies perhaps the most important Jewish site of all: Eli’s Restaurant, a glatt kosher eatery where we rested our tired feet and feasted every night before heading back to Potomac on the Metro.
These two centuries have witnessed the Jewish people leading unprecedented gilded lives in the Golden Medina. We have struggled for acceptance, marched for tolerance and enjoyed breakthroughs in every field. The Jews are perhaps the best evidence for the potential of the cherished American value of freedom. Given the chance, the Jews manage to excel in every vocation, from Broadway to boxing, garments to gambling, physics to physique. Jews represent .01% of the global population and 20% of the Nobel prizes, including five laureates in 2011 alone. For the past century, Jewish Hollywood has defined the American Dream and exported that mythology to a world hungry for hope.
It is my prayer that we baffle the demographers that preach our demise with a Jewish renaissance in our beloved home away from Homeland. The answer for us Jews is simple. Affiliate, propagate, reach out, focus on one mitzvah at time, and have fun in the process. No need to reinvent the wheel. The Jewish People have the answer for survival and the United States, by adopting our mission statement, will God-willing continue to share our mission as a light unto nations. Have a happy Thanksgiving.