February 1, 2007
Washington, D. C.: Progress on both sides of the aisle
For me, that message hit home in a very special place this year: the White House.
For reasons both complicated and simple, last December, my wife, Betsy, and I were invited by the President and Mrs. Bush to the White House to attend their annual Chanukah party. Something unexpected and amazing happened to us there, but not where you might think.
It wasn't speaking with the president and Laura Bush; it wasn't wandering the White House staring at portraits of Washington and Lincoln while nibbling on kreplach. It wasn't the Marine Corps Band playing Chanukah songs or even stepping out on to the balcony overlooking the Rose Garden, spending a moment alone where so many have stood with the world on their shoulders. Nope -- amazing as all of that was, none of it stacked up to what was next.
There we were, sharing a brief word or two with the president and his wife while waiting for the White House photographer to take our picture, when Betsy leaned over to the president and asked, "Can I see the kitchen?"
Betsy is a talented cook with a fair amount of training. A TV special on the White House kitchen and its head chef intrigued her months ago, and she figured this was her shot.
"Huh?" the president responded. "The kitchen? Here? Ours?"
You could tell that despite all these years standing in line greeting people, taking pictures and answering questions, this was a first for the president. He looked at me with a sort of husband-to-husband smile on his face and said, "The kitchen? I've never seen it."
After seeing how stunned the president was by the question, Laura. Bush stepped in.
"Well of course you can see the kitchen. Charles," she politely requested while pointing to one of her aides, "would you please show Rabbi and Mrs. Leder to the kitchen?"
Next thing you know, there we were, smack dab in front of the steam table and the stove.
And that's when I saw him -- the mashgiach. A mashgiach is a rabbi specially trained in the laws of keeping kosher. There he was, beard, kippah, payes, tzitzit and all, watching over the White House kitchen to be sure the food was strictly kosher. A Chanukah miracle if I ever saw one.
"Rabbi," the head chef shouted from across the kitchen, addressing the mashgiach, "can I put the fish in this oven after I take the chicken out, or is that not OK?"
"Fish after chicken?" the mashgiach responded. "No problem."
To some this would seem a comical moment -- to me it was deadly serious. A little more than 60 years ago, the American Jewish community was so politically impotent that we could not get Franklin Delano Roosevelt to do anything to stop the slaughter of 6 million Jews. Roosevelt's record on Jewish refugees and their rescue is "very poor" -- one of the worst failures of his presidency -- according to historian David Wyman. On this point, at least, there appears to be some measure of agreement among historians.
"This is not an issue on which Roosevelt's reputation for greatness will rest," said historian Alan Brinkley in a documentary on the Holocaust. "Quite the contrary -- the record is quite poor."
Sixty years after Roosevelt, thanks to hard work and commitment by generations of American Jews, Betsy and I stood next to a mashgiach in the White House kitchen during a time in America when nearly all politicians of import have a profound respect for the role American Jews play in our society.
I am not a Republican. I am not a Democrat. I make my decisions on people not platforms. I am overjoyed that there are Jewish Democrats with influence in the Democratic Party. I am equally glad that there are Jewish Republicans with influence in the Republican Party.
The Torah speaks of the suffering the Jews in Egypt underwent when "there arose a new king who did not know Joseph." American Jews can never afford to be anything other than close to the president, whomever he or she may be.
I, for one, am grateful to be an American during a time when the Jewish people is embraced not just in rhetoric and public statements but in the White House, in the room where, like in every house, things are revealed in their truest form -- the kitchen.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things" published by Behrman House.