What was President George W. Bush thinking?
In 2006, President Bush declared May as the first Jewish American Heritage Month.
Congress had unanimously passed a resolution, introduced by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), calling for such a month to be declared by the president. The idea originated with the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach and the south Florida Jewish community, as an outgrowth of the 2004 celebration of 350 years since the first Jews landed in New Amsterdam.
We like the idea of celebrating, as President Obama put it in his declaration this year, the “tremendous contributions” of American Jews “as scientists and artists, as activists and entrepreneurs.”
Is there ever a time on the calendar when we feel less American?
Last week was Yom Hashoah, and our hearts and thoughts were in Europe’s bloody lands.
This week was the one-two punch of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day – and our hearts and thoughts have been in Israel.
And all along we count the Omer, counting the days between Judea’s long-ago grain harvests even as we transition between the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai – today, also in Egypt.
But perhaps that’s the real message of Jewish American Heritage Month.
When the first large group of Jews stepped ashore in New Amsterdam in September, 1654 – 23 refugees from the Catholic Portuguese conquest of Dutch Brazil – they were greeted coldly by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who wrote to his bosses at the Dutch West India Company about his desire to expel them, that “the deceitful race – such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ – be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony.”
Mr. Stuyvesant misjudged the Company, whose directorate included influential Jews. It ordered him to permit the Jews to remain, “provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation.” They were not, however, allowed to form a synagogue or to practice, in Mr. Stuyvesant’s words, “the free and public exercise of their abominable religion.”
Three hundred and fifty odd years later, at a time of year when our hearts are in the East, America is clamoring for our attention.
Frankly, that’s a very nice feeling.
Happy Jewish American Heritage Month.