The White House menorah
ON THE 7th night of Hanukkah in 1944, my father was in Auschwitz. He had been deported with his family to the Nazi extermination camp eight months earlier; by Hanukkah, only my father was still alive. That year, he kindled no Hanukkah lights. In Auschwitz, where anything and everything was punishable by death, any Jew caught practicing his religion could expect to be sent to the gas chambers, or shot on the spot.
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Moreover, Hanukkah, like other Jewish holidays, was often chosen deliberately by the Nazis as an occasion for murdering Jews. In “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” the historian Yaffa Eliach recounts one such slaughter:
“The men selected were marched outside. SS men with rubber truncheons and iron prods awaited them. They kicked, beat, and tortured the innocent victims. When the tortured body no longer responded, the revolver was used. . . . The brutal massacre continued outside of the barracks until sundown. When the [Nazis] departed, they left behind heaps of hundreds of tortured and twisted bodies.”
Last week, on the 7th night of Hanukkah 2007, I was in the White House. President and Mrs. Bush have made it an annual tradition to host a Hanukkah celebration in addition to the customary White House Christmas parties, and my wife and I were honored to receive an invitation to this year’s reception.
It was a beautiful and festive event. It was also an undeniably Jewish one, from the lavish buffet dinner prepared in a carefully “koshered” White House kitchen, to the Hebrew songs performed by the Zamir Chorale, to the several hundred guests drawn from every segment of the American Jewish community.
There was even a spontaneous worship service in the Green Room, where at one point about two dozen guests assembled for “maa’riv,” the Jewish evening prayers. All this in a White House richly decorated for Christmas and occupied by a president who is devoutly Christian. It is hard to imagine a more compelling illustration of the American culture of religious tolerance and freedom.
Earlier in the evening there had been a menorah lighting in the Grand Foyer of the White House. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of Jews who fought long ago to preserve their religious identity in the face of an oppressive government determined to wipe it out, and President Bush spoke of the ongoing struggle for religious liberty. “As we light the Hanukkah candles this year,” he said, “we pray for those who still live under the shadow of tyranny.” He described his private meeting earlier in the day with a small group of Jewish immigrants to the United States.
“Many of these men and women fled from religious oppression in countries like Iran and Syria and the Soviet Union,” Bush said. Among those in attendance was Baghdad-born Ruth Pearl, who was 15 when her family – like so many other Jewish families – was forced to flee from Iraq.
She and her husband Judea, the parents of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, had come to the White House with their family menorah, which Daniel’s great-grandfather Chayim had taken with him on leaving Poland for Palestine in 1924.
Daniel was murdered in 2002 by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan; his only crime, Bush noted, “was being a Jewish American – something Daniel Pearl would never deny.”
Auschwitz, Baghdad, Poland, Pakistan: In so many places, across so many generations, to be Jewish was to be oppressed, excluded, terrorized. More than most people, Jews know what it means to be a persecuted minority.
And more than most, therefore, they have reason to be profoundly grateful for the United States and its blessings. America is what the Jewish sages called “malchut shel chesed” – a benevolent and generous nation. In the long history of the Jews, America has been a safe harbor virtually without parallel. Nowhere in all their wanderings have the Jews known such freedom, peace, and prosperity.
So I strolled about the White House last week, gazing at the portraits of past presidents and first ladies and listening to the Marine Band play “I Have A Little Dreidel.” By the light of the White House menorah, I thought about my father, and about the unimaginable distance from the hell he knew in 1944 to the place of joy and warmth where I found myself standing in 2007. I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude so intense that for a moment I was too choked up to speak. To be an American and a Jew is truly to be doubly blessed.
Jeff Jacoby’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.