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The American Jewish Century-Rosh Hashana, 2012, 5733

06/04/2015 08:12:11 AM


Rabbi Feinstein

The American Jewish Century
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rosh Hashana, 2012, 5733

A true story of the most important American Jew of the 20th century that you probably never heard of.

On November 29, 1947, the United States supported the UN resolution calling for the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. Within six months, on May 14, 1948, the British were scheduled to leave Palestine. And for the first time in two millennia, the Jewish people would have a homeland.

During those six months, pressure mounted within the US government against American recognition of the new Jewish state. The State Department lined up against it, fearing that it would alienate Arab states and jeopardize oil supplies. The revered General George Marshall, the Secretary of State, and the most famous public figure in the US, warned President Truman that if he recognized the new Jewish state, Marshall would resign and campaign against him. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal argued that the Jewish state would need the protection of 160,000 American troops. Forrestal argued that the US should turn Palestine over to the United Nations to govern as a trustee. Truman felt compassion for Holocaust survivors still in European camps and he had a reverence for Biblical history. But under the immense pressure, Truman relented. And the US gave up its plan to support the Jewish state, effectively rendering Israel stillborn.

The Zionist movement sent every envoy, pulled every string, exerted every effort to change the President’s mind. Having remained too silent, during the Holocaust, Jewish leaders would not to sit quietly while this opportunity passed. Senators, diplomats, community leaders came to meet the President. But Truman was the kind of man when pushed, became only more stubborn. He wrote in his diaries, “You cannot satisfy the Jews! The Jews have no sense of proportion, nor do they have any judgment on world affairs…The Jews, I find, are very very selfish.”

Harry Truman wasn’t overtly anti-Semitic. True, his wife Bess would let no Jewish person into their home. Back home in Independence, Missouri, he had lived next door to a Jewish family, the Viners, and Harry often served as the family Shabbos goy. A simple, uneducated man, Harry Truman absorbed the cultural attitudes of the American heartland and he carried a chip on his shoulder against the powerful, the well-connected and the arrogant. The more political pressure the Zionist movement exerted, the more he resisted, until he banned all Zionist representative from the White House. Chaim Weitzman, the great Zionist leader, came to New York to see the President, but Truman refused to see him.

As the days toward the May deadline ticked away, the Zionist leadership became desperate. Having exhausted every avenue of influence, they looked for anyone who might get through to Truman. And that’s how they found Eddie Jacobson.

During the First World War, Private Eddie Jacobson had been the clerk for Lieutenant Harry Truman. After the war, they went into business together, in a haberdashery shop in Kansas City. They remained drinking buddies and played poker whenever Truman visited Kansas City. Jacobson wanted nothing to do with politics, and he strongly resisted asking his old friend for favors. But the Zionist leadership implored him. So Jacobson wired the President: “I have asked very little in the way of favors during all our years of friendship, but I am begging you to see Dr Weitzman.” The President responded that the Palestine situation was unsolvable. Refusing to give up, Jacobson came uninvited to Washington on March 13, 1947, to talk with the President personally.

After waiting some hours, Truman called him into the Oval Office with the warning, “Eddie, I know what you are here for, and the answer is no.” When Jacobson asked him to reconsider, Truman exploded in a tirade against the “Eastern Jews” who slandered and libeled him. He didn’t want to discuss Jews or Arabs or the Brititsh; let the UN take care of it! Jacobson was stunned. He had nothing to say.

On Truman’s desk sat a replica of the courthouse statue in Jackson County, Missouri. Improvising, Jacobson said, "Harry, all your life, you have had a hero. You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. Well, Harry, I too have a hero—a man I never met, but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived ... Chaim Weizmann. He is a very sick man ... but he traveled thousands of miles just to see you … And now you’re putting him off. This isn’t like you, Harry.”

Deep in thought, Truman drummed his desktop, then swiveled in his chair to gaze at the South Lawn of the White House. For what seemed "like centuries," Eddie held his breath. Then the president spun back around and uttered the most "endearing" words Jacobson had ever heard him speak: "You win, you bald-headed son-of-a-bitch! I will see him."

On Thursday, March 18, after dark, Chaim Weizmann was slipped into the Oval Office. After their conversation, Truman assured Weizmann that America would follow through with its recognition of the new Jewish state. On Friday evening, May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion read Israel’s declaration of independence, establishing the Jewish state. Eleven minutes later, by order of the President, the United States of America recognized Israel’s independence. Asked later why he resisted his own State Department, Truman responded, the ultimate test of a presidential decision is not whether it’s popular at the time, but whether it’s right. If it’s right, make it, and let the popular part take care of itself.”

Sometimes one moment in history can be emblematic of a deep truth. This is how we construct meaning: We pick from the infinite number of experiences, encounters, words, images, and save one moment of deep truth. This isn’t history, it is memory, it is myth. The meeting of Eddie Jacobson and Harry Truman captures this miraculous American Jewish century.

My grandfather was among the 2 ½ million Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America at the beginning of the 20th century. He came in 1912, a timid, scared young man, sent here by his family. He found work making steamer trunks. When his brother-in-law died, he supported his sister and her seven children, before he found a wife and began his own family. For Zeyde, America was a strange, confusing land. He never really spoke English and never deciphered its culture. And he not could possibly imagine the life his grandchildren and great-grandchildren live.

Politicians ask if we’re better off than we were four years ago. As an American Jew, I’d rather ask, are we better off than we were 100 years ago?

Zeyde worried about starvation. That was very real for him. Over and again his family was evicted from homes he couldn’t pay for. My mother had harsh memories of sitting on a Brooklyn street surrounded by the family furniture as Zeyde went looking for the next landlord that might take them in. He worried about anti-Semitism. I remember as a young child walking with him. Whenever he would see a uniform, any uniform, policeman, fireman, mailman, he’d grasp my hand and we’d cross the street. In his world, uniforms were always dangerous for Jews.

Are we better off? Even in bad economic times, we enjoy a level of prosperity he could never imagine. We live without fear. Yes, there are still anti-Semites, but anti-Semitism no longer controls our lives. Anti-Semitism no longer determines where we live, what schools our children attend, what businesses we work at, what clubs we join. Anti-Semitism still rises up, but it no longer shapes us. We are the first Jews in history to never know a knock at the door in the middle of the night. Zeyde worried about acceptance. Would his children ever find a place in this strange new land? Just look at the names we were given. Avraham and Rebecca came to America, and they raised Morris and Muriel. Who raised Steven and Nancy. Who raised Brett and Jennifer. Who are sitting in the family service this morning with little Avi and Becca.

Over these one hundred years, we have found a home in America beyond our dreams. No land of the Jewish diaspora, in all our history has welcomed Jews the way America has. We have more freedom and security, more prosperity, more influence and power than any place we’ve ever lived. America did more than tolerate Jews, America invited Jews to join the collective cultural conversation and shape its character. One could legitimately argue that outside of the founding Puritans, no community has had a greater impact on American culture than American Jews. America invited us to become Americans. And America invited us to make America Jewish. This has been American Jewish century.

So let us ask two questions. And I hope that at your holiday table, you will discuss these with your friends and your family. What have we learned from America? And what has America learned from us?

These questions are not solely historical, they are normative: What should we learn from America? What should America learn from us? They are best answered not from opinion polls and historical facts, but mythically, from stories of emblematic moments….which brings us back to Eddie Jacobson and Harry Truman.

What does America learn from us?

Eddie Jacobson demanded of his old friend Harry Truman -- Do what’s right! Uphold your own principles. He pointed to the statue of Andrew Jackson sitting on the President’s desk and reminded Truman that Jacksonian democracy was a democracy that celebrated the common sense of the common man. Andrew Jackson rejected the power of elites, of experts and authorities and hierarchies. For Truman as for Jackson, America was built on the wisdom and goodness and courage of common men and women. Truman frequently swore at what he called the “striped-pants boys” of the State Department whose sophisticated theories and machinations only barely masked their contempt for black people, for Jews, for Asians. It was Harry Truman who issued the controversial order to integrate the United States armed forces, that very summer of 1948. The common sense of the common man held that equality, the dignity of individuals, and the solidarity of all Americans, made America unique and made America great.

It is our task to call on America to “do what’s right,” and live up to its founding principles. As People of the Book, we remind America that it was founded on Biblical principles -- The dignity due every human being. The special responsibility to protect the vulnerable. The imperative to create the just and gentle society. We are taught in Deuteronomy: The Lord your God shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 12:17ff). The process of realizing those principles is the on-going American project, it is our national journey to the Promised Land. We’re not finished yet. We haven’t realized these ideals yet.

The greatest sin of society, according to the Biblical prophets, is to render a human being invisible. Socially invisible. Every urban society tolerates a certain level of latent evil. We tolerate it by holding those who suffer out of sight. A weary single mother waiting six hours with her sick child to see a doctor in a public hospital because she has no health insurance….we don’t see her, she’s invisible. An exhausted young teacher trying to teach in a crowded classroom in a rundown school, so deficient in resources that she has to buy her student school supplies out of her own meager wages… we don’t see her, she’s invisible. An immigrant family, sleeping six or seven in a single bedroom, working 18-hour days in a downtown sweat-shop…we don’t see them, they’re invisible. As long as they’re invisible, we don’t have to worry about them. They’re not our problem. They can’t interfere with our lives. The prophets demanded. Open your eyes and see. “In a democratic society,” Abraham Heschel preached, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel declared: “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe". This is what we have come to teach America.

This is more than a social contract. More than a matter of pragmatic, practical social policy. We are an old people. We have witnessed humanity’s greatest, most powerful kingdoms, empires and regimes rise and crumble. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. The Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, the French, the British Empires, the Nazis, the Soviets. In their arrogance, they believed the power of their armies, the prosperity of their trade, and opulence of their cities would ensure their immortality. They’re all gone. Because history isn’t only about worldly power. History is shaped by ideas, by conscience, by moral vision. When told that Pope in Rome objected to his policies, Stalin once asked derisively how many battalions the Pope commands. Fifty years later, Russian leaders discovered the power of a Pope’s moral vision to shape the course of history. Armies, economies, interests, governments hold power. But ask Nelson Mandela how much power there is to the idea of justice. Ask Lech Walesa and Vacslav Havel how much power there is to the love of freedom. Ask Martin Luther King how much power there is to the promise of equality. Ask David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir about the power of visions and dreams. This country was founded and sustained against all odd by men and women who loved freedom and believed in its power to overcome tyranny.

This is a lesson of our Rosh Hashanah holiday: Nations are judged. It is our conviction, born of our long experience, that in history, nations are judged according to their commitment to justice, their commitment to the dignity of each human being, their devotion to freedom. This nation, too, will be judged. The prophet Isaiah proclaims in the tenth chapter:

Those who write out evil laws

And compose wicked statues

2To subvert the cause of the poor,

To rob of the needy of My people of their rights;

That widows may be their spoil,

And orphans their plunder!

3What will you do on the day of punishment,

When the calamity comes from afar? Where will you hide?

To call ourselves “one nation under God” is to affirm our common solidarity with the weak, the outcast, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised. What is idolatry? Taught Abraham Joshua Heschel. “An idol is a god who is mine but not yours. A god concerned with me but not with you.” “[American] Jews,” writes historian Mark Dollinger, “stood at the crossroads of twentieth century American political change and helped direct the nation toward a vision of democracy rooted in tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law.”

And not just in politics, but this is a trope in the American Jewish contribution to popular culture as well: Emma Lazerus welcomed the poor, huddled masses to these shores. Aaron Copland wrote “Fanfare for the Common Man”; In “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin shared the music and heart and humanity of African Americans with white America. And in “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, shared the lives of New York’s Puerto Ricans. Superman, defender of truth, justice and the American Way, was created by two Jewish boys who got beat up on their way to Hebrew School in Cleveland. From Graucho Marx to Norman Lear to Jon Stewart, American Jews used laughter as a weapon against the arrogance of prejudice. In 1966, comedian Lenny Bruce declared our solidarity with the vulnerable…

Dig: I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor's goyish. If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you're Jewish. Blacks are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irish who have rejected their religion are Jews. Baton-twirling is very goyish.

And what has America taught us?

Zeyde knew starvation, prejudice, and exclusion. But he never worried about identity, authenticity, or purpose. Zeyde never lost pride in being a Jew. Ask him why he was a Jew, he would look at you like you were crazy. He spoke Yiddish, he kept Shabbos, he made Yontiff. What else could he be? What else would a person want to be? He was spiritually secure even when he was terribly materially insecure. His grandchildren have it the other way around. We’ve succeeded in gaining power, prosperity and acceptance far beyond Zeyde’s imagination. But our children wonder why be Jewish. What difference does it make? And in moments of reflection, we ask ourselves the same questions. Why keep this up? What’s the meaning of being Jewish? We find ourselves materially secure, but spiritually insecure.

If Harry Truman had no intention of acceding to his friend’s request, why did he bother seeing him altogether? Why admit him to the Oval Office? Why not send him home? Truman was a shrewd judge of people. He was looking for something in Eddie Jacobson. Commitment. Conviction. Passion.

America looks for the same in us. America presents the Jewish people with a spiritual opportunity, and a spiritual test. Perhaps the greatest opportunity and test of our history. America asks us: Absent coercion, exclusion, absent any external pressure, what remains of your Jewish identity? Are there sufficient spiritual resources within the Jewish tradition to compel the loyalty of your children to Jewish faith and culture? Will they choose to be Jews? You have evolved an exquisite set of defenses against hatred. What will you do when you’re loved, accepted, welcomed? Will you find meaning in your tradition? America has taught us to speak a new language, the language of democracy.

In democracy, freedom is expressed in personal autonomy. Therefore, we are no longer a chosen people, we are a choosing people. And we choose in only if Jewish life brings us meaning. Personal meaning is a new language for Judaism. In the Pesach Hagaddah, the child who asks how we do the rites and rituals of the Seder is privileged as the hacham, the wise one. The child who asks, mah zeh lachem, what does this mean to you? He is castigated as the Rasha, the wicked child. But that question is now the core and center of Jewish life: mah zeh lachem? Why are we doing this? How does this ancient tradition shape the narrative of contemporary life? The great philosopher of American Judaism was Mordecai Kaplan. According to his most illustrious student, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Kaplan’s singular achievement was to bring the Present Tense back into Judaism. The veneration of the past is no longer our exclusive obsession. The operant question is: Does it speak to the now? Does it inspire now?

In democracy, communities are open to one another. We all have members of our families who were not born Jewish. The boundaries of the Jewish community are fluid and permeable. I said to my children, I love being Jewish, I hope you do too. Find a life partner who will share that with you. Find a life partner who will light Shabbos candles with you. Find a partner who will build a Sukkah and visit Israel. I don’t care what they were born; I’m interested only in where they’re going. We have come to cherish people in our community of every race, background, ethnicity. We can no longer shut them out. That day is past. So how do we welcome them and help them find a home within Jewish life?

In democracy, moral truth is tentative, unfixed, always evolving. American Judaism today is relentlessly experimental. (especially here at VBS.) No institution, no ideology, no ritual, no practices are fixed and immune from re-examination, re-imagination, and re-invention. This can be unnerving. But it is also exciting. We don’t sing the melodies we sang last year. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash! Proclaims the Psalmist. We’re growing, our Torah growing, our sense of God is growing.

In America, we are learning a new Jewish language. But just because living Jewish is no longer dangerous, doesn’t no always easy. Many of the demands of Judaism, run counter to the central trends of American life. Judaism demands time of people who have little time. Judaism demands devotion of people who are exhausted by the rhythms of life. Judaism demands we slow down, think deeply, meditate, act with care, spend money with care, think about the other when we’re just hanging on ourselves. It’s an act of will to drive a kid to Hebrew School week in and week out. It’s an act of will to give up a Sunday to do a Hesed project – feeding the hungry, cleaning a beach, building a home for a homeless family. It’s an act of will to get up early on a Saturday morning and attend Torah study with the rabbi. Building a Sukkah, setting a Seder table, taking a family trip to Israel, it takes a decision.

And what do you get for your trouble? What’s the reward?

I wish I could tell you that practicing Judaism will make you thin. It won’t. Trust me on this. I wish I could tell you it will make you smarter, richer, more attractive. Nope. I wish I could tell you it will make you happy. It will, sometimes. That may be a by-product. However worthy, Judaism was not designed for any of those goals.

Judaism was designed to do one thing. To give you a life of purpose, of meaning, of importance. And practiced faithfully, it does that exceedingly well.

The world can turn us cynical and leave us soured on ideals and dreams. The practice of Judaism heals that cynicism and revives moral courage. Suffering and struggling can narrow our vision and turn us selfish. The practice of Judaism opens the eyes to life’s possibilities and the context of our existence. The opposite of Judaism isn’t Christianity or Islam or even atheism. The opposite of Judaism is to say, I give up. What is, is what is meant to be, and it can’t be fixed. That’s our only heresy. The opposite of Judaism is moral surrender and despair. The opposite of Judaism is to wrap yourself in your “privatism” and say, I don’t hear; I don’t see; I don’t care. Because when you give up on the world, you also give up on yourself.

Judaism will not let you despair of the world, of humanity or of yourself. It will not let you give up.  Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: To be a Jew is to be sensitive to God’s infinite stake in every finite situation; to bear witness to God’s presence in the hours of God’s concealment; to remember that the world is unredeemed. We are born to be an answer to God’s question. Our way is either a pilgrimage or a flight.

In late May of 1948, Chaim Weitzman returned to Washington to thank the President. In the White House Rose Garden, Weitzman gave Truman a gift -- a small Torah scroll. Truman embraced the scroll in his arms lovingly, and responded: “Thanks, I’ve always wanted one of these.” What sweeter symbol could we ask for this remarkable century – the President of the United States cradling in his arms the Presidential Torah, a gift of the State of Israel and a grateful people Israel.

Shana Tova.

Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780