"Only in America."
That's what I kept repeating to myself last week when I celebrated Hanukkah at a White House party attended by President and Mrs. Bush.
Only in America does a president light a menorah while a Jewish choral group sings Hebrew songs and the Marine band plays American songs. Only in America do Jews feel so honored as Jews and yet so completely part of the larger culture, fully Jewish and fully part of the greater nationality. Non-American Jews (including even Canadians) are often amazed at how completely American Jews in the U.S. feel. We take it for granted, but as a former college lecturer in Jewish history, I know that this is unique.
It is an incredible blessing to be an American Jew (or "Jewish American" -- both terms are accurate). We are doubly blessed. An Israeli interviewer once asked if I were first a Jew or an American, "I have two fathers," I said. "George Washington and the patriarch Abraham." So to be one of about 200 Jews invited to celebrate Hanukkah at the White House with the president of the United States was about as profound a personal moment as I have experienced. My two loves -- America and Judaism -- in one place, reinforcing each other.
I suspect that this feeling was shared by just about every Jew present, including bearded Orthodox rabbis heretofore not prone to affirming any non-Jewish national identity. As a yeshiva graduate, I never thought I would live to see identifying Jews, let alone Orthodox rabbis, so happy to be in a room with a menorah and a Christmas tree. Yet that signified a sea change taking place in American Jewish life -- the realization that Christianity is no longer the enemy or the great Other but, for the first time in 2,000 years, a great ally.
This realization has yet to dawn on many Jews. The memory of almost two millenniums of European, i.e., Christian, anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust is seared deeply in Jewish hearts and minds, and it is very hard for most Jews to truly believe that the cross is a friend, not an invitation to a pogrom.
But American Christianity has never been like European Christianity in its attitude toward Jews and Judaism. Jews have been equals and honored as such from even before the creation of the United States. Many of the founders studied Hebrew; Thomas Jefferson wanted the Seal of the United States to depict the Jews' exodus from Egypt; Yale University's insignia is in Hebrew; a verse from the Torah (Leviticus) is inscribed on the Liberty Bell; a rabbi attended George Washington's inauguration -- the list of pro-Jewish expressions in U.S. history is endless. But perhaps most telling is the fact that although there have been any number of Christian countries and there are many secular ones today, it is the U.S. that calls itself Judeo-Christian.
It is not often that the orthodox of any faith, and certainly within Judaism, are at the vanguard of a movement of change. But the number of ultra-Orthodox at the White House, and their passionate support for an evangelical Christian named George W. Bush, made manifest what is already known: Orthodox Jews understand that the Jews' greatest allies are the only other group in the world to believe that the Torah is from God -- conservative Christians.
And the sea change is affecting not only Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Eli Herscher, head rabbi of my synagogue, the Stephen S. Wise Temple, one of the two largest Reform synagogues in America, was at the party. He proudly told me that he, a lifelong Democrat, voted for Bush.
Most Jews, including some at this celebration, still instinctively vote Democrat. For most Jews, secular liberalism, not Judaism, is their religion, and their social values are derived from liberal editorial pages rather than from the Torah. Additionally, for many older Jews, Franklin D. Roosevelt is constantly running for reelection. (As a Jew born after the Holocaust, I have never understood the American Jewish adulation of FDR, who failed Jewry miserably when Jews most needed help.)
But that generation of Jews, may God bless them for their many wonderful accomplishments, is passing on, and among younger Jews there is far greater receptivity to the conservative belief in American exceptionality than to the liberal belief in U.N., French-German and world opinion.
As for the belief that "Democrat" means caring for the poor and the downtrodden, that simplistic equation is also losing its hold. Younger Jews are becoming aware that there are many ways to help the poor, not just liberal ones, and that liberal "social justice" rhetoric often masks personal narcissism, as reflected in the lesser amounts of charity given by liberals than conservatives and the refusal of most liberals to welcome sacrifice in spreading liberty.
So it was quite a night, that Hanukkah night at the White House, with hundreds of fellow Jews from all over the U.S., from ultra-Orthodox to ultra-secular, celebrating America, its Judeo-Christian value system and its Republican president. Increasingly the White House's greatest challenge will be how to narrow the Hanukkah party list to just 200.