Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Article from my White House Chanukah visit

I wrote an opinion article regarding my White House/Chanukah trip, and it ran in the Allentown Morning Call on Thursday, December 13. They edited it marginally, just enough to wreck some of the grammar. This is their version:

(Their title: White House Chanukah signals democratic health)

The phrase ''Only in America'' is trite, but apt for the occasion: On Monday evening Dec. 10, my wife Caren and I joined a few hundred other Jewish Americans for a Chanukah party in the White House. The hosts were President and Mrs. Bush, and all I could think was, ''Only in America.''

Cynics carp that such cultural celebrations, like the president's marking of Eid al-Fitr this past October, are essentially political tools, meant to appeal to minority voters.

But, I believe that the cynics are missing the point. The lesson of such occasions is that only in America, and in the societies America has inspired, can a minority gain this sort of political notice, this level of electoral significance.

If the motivation is to win the favor of a cultural minority, that's a good thing, a sign of our country's democratic health. The Chinese government doesn't need to worry about catering to a minority, and neither do Arab nations; only in America does the president have to pause to think about the feelings of each ethnic group. Only in America will the president's staff contact the Orthodox Union and offer it the chance to invite four rabbis to celebrate Chanukah at the White House.

And so, we marked Chanukah with a menorah from the family of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter brutally murdered by terrorists for the crime of being Jewish. Daniel Pearl's parents, wife and family were honored guests for the evening.

And so, we enjoyed kosher food, prepared in the White House kitchen with equipment that had been specially treated to render it kosher. Cookies bore the phrase, ''Happy Chanukah,'' and we munched on traditional Chanukah jelly doughnuts beneath the portraits of past presidents and first ladies.

And so, we heard the Jewish Zamir Chorale, as well as a military band, perform such Chanukah classics as ''Rock of Ages'' and ''I Had a Little Dreidel.'' Those big brass sections really add something to the traditional tunes.

And so, a rabbi and rebbetzin (rabbi's wife) from the third-largest city in Pennsylvania were honored by the Orthodox Union with the opportunity to meet the President of the United States and First Lady and stand beside them for a photograph. (We actually took two photographs; the President explained that he had blinked on the first one.)

And, to return to those cynics for a moment: The Chanukah celebration at the White House was not entirely politically inspired; the White House also marks Chanukah privately, more quietly, with a commemoration for its Jewish employees.In a nation of businesses who stage ''holiday parties'' meant to serve as catch-all celebrations for employees of all ethnicities, this White House holds separate parties for White House staff members on their own holidays. This means that Jewish staff members have their own Chanukah party, not as part of the public celebration and not as part of some generic ''holiday'' celebration, but as a commemoration of their own. Would that our nation's businesses were similarly sensitive!

America, after all of the constitutional legislation and all of the political debate, is culturally Christian. I walk the malls bemusedly staring at all of the red and green. I turn on the radio and hear holiday music, I drive down the street and see lone candles in the windows and chains of lights draped over shrubbery. The White House was filled with tinsel-decorated evergreen trees; even the invitation for the Chanukah party featured a picture of a festively decorated fir tree.

But none of this troubles me. The beauty of America, at least to me, is that the citizens of this great nation can celebrate their own festivities and simultaneously recognize the celebrations of others.

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