by Suzanne Pollak
Who needs an official White House celebration anyway?
Musical theater, interesting speakers, good causes and, of course, some delicious food, highlighted the 2013 Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM) festivities.
Vice President Joe Biden set the tone during his May 21 speech at a luncheon sponsored by the Democratic National Committee when he said, “The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage.”
He also pointed to “so many notions that are embraced by this nation that particularly emanate from over 5,000 years of Jewish history, tradition and culture: independence, individualism, fairness, decency, justice, charity. These are all as you say, as I learned early on as a Catholic being educated by my friends, this tzedakah.”
He noted that Jews “make up 11 percent of the seats in the United States Congress” as well as one-third of Nobel laureates, and declared that Jews have had an influence over many of the social issues currently in the news today.
Congress first celebrated JAHM in 2006, and Obama then marked it with a celebration beginning in 2010. But due to budgetary restraints, this year’s official White House celebration, as well as a similar celebration for Cinco de Mayo, were canceled.
Biden wasn’t the only high-ranking politician to speak during several activities throughout May. Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to Obama; Zach Kelly, the Jewish liaison to the White House; and six senators and three representatives also addressed enthusiastic audiences.
Greg Rosenbaum, co-chair of JAHM, said that the Jewish politicians “talked about their heritage.”
A luncheon at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room in the U.S. Capitol, sponsored by Ezra Friedlander of the Friedlander Group, paid tribute to American Jewry and honored several Jewish leaders involved in both public service and charitable work.
Receiving honors were Harvey and Gloria Kaylie, supporters of OHEL Children’s Home and Family Service in New York; the Rothenberg Law Firm for its work fighting Jewish discrimination and working for civil rights for all; the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York on its 10th anniversary; Simcha Eichenstein, senior adviser to New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli in the division of Intergovernmental and Community Affairs; and Daniel E. Kestenbaum, founding director of Kestenbaum & Company, a New York City-based boutique auction house dedicated to the sale of rare books, manuscripts and ceremonial art.
A reading of Gefilte Fish Chronicles, the Musical was staged May 21 in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is part of the White House complex. It takes place around a family seder table and “deals with the types of issues every Jewish family goes through,” noted Rosenbaum.
A get-together sponsored by the Survivor Initiative on May 22 allowed many third generation Holocaust survivors to socialize and listen to speakers Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Mark Talisman, president of the Project Judaica Foundation, who is working to force insurance companies to pay off on the billions of dollars owed in unpaid policies to survivors.
The Survivor Initiative, which raised almost $50,000 in its first year, not only raises money to ease the golden years of those who survived the Holocaust, but it also matches young people with survivors.
“Survivors will not go to bed hungry, not on our watch,” said Rachel Cohen Gerrol, one of the group’s founders.
Rep. Schultz said the money raised to help Holocaust survivors stay in their homes and provide them with transportation, home modifications and kosher meals is particularly important as the senior citizens tend not to do well in institutions. “The sites, sounds and routines” often are reminiscent of the Holocaust, she said.
They should be allowed to “age in place in dignity,” she said, adding, “Repairing the world is an attainable goal if we all work together.”
Caitlin O’Grady of D.C. said she attended the event because she is a fan of Schultz. She, and her mother, Susan Zlotlow of Columbia, took time during the dessert reception to speak of their family members, some of whom survived the Holocaust and some of whom did not.
O’Grady’s grandfather, a doctor, tried to heal Jews who had just gone through various medical experiments by Nazis, as they tried to create a perfect race.
Her grandmother was sent on a death march. At one point, too ill to go on, she fell, believing she was about to die. She happened to see a tiny horseshoe, “more like a pony shoe,” O’Grady said. Without telling anyone else, she carried that horseshoe with her throughout her life.
“Before she died, she gave it to me for good luck,” said O’Grady, a graduate student.
The horseshoe and a photograph of her grandparents looking as happy and proud as possible are two memories O’Grady and her mother hold dear. Her grandmother had explained they looked so happy, because they were wearing the very first clothes they received following the Holocaust while at a Displaced Persons camp.
All in all, “I just felt really good at the end of the week, given where we had started from,” said Rosenbaum, referring to the White House’s cancellation of JAHM festivities.