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Jewish Journal

What a Difference a Day Makes

by Tom Tugend

September 29, 2005 | 8:00 pm

It's the contrasts that make life interesting.

Last Friday, I was in the East Room of the White House, along with George,

Laura, Dick, Karl and Don.

For provincials outside the Beltway, that's, of course, President Bush, the first lady, Vice President Cheney, political guru Rove and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

The following day, not having to catch a flight back to Los Angeles until late afternoon, I was again at the White House, although this time separated by a police cordon. Passing in front and behind me were more than 100,000 citizens of all sizes, ages, colors and sexual orientations loudly expressing unkind opinions about the character, IQ, veracity and ancestry of my amiable hosts of the previous day.

The business of the previous day had been to applaud my fellow Californian, a Korean War vet named Tibor "Ted" Rubin. Our distinguished hosts presented him with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award for intrepid gallantry in combat.

What gave the ceremony an extra fillip was that Rubin is a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant who was not even an American citizen when he put his life on the line for the United States. And because of a superior's blatant anti-Semitism, it had taken the government close to 55 years to recognize Rubin's extreme bravery, which included both audacity on the battlefield and surpassing humanity and resourcefulness in keeping fellow prisoners alive at a brutal POW camp.

Rubin was allowed by the White House to invite 200 guests, and I was among them. His saucy wit was not submerged by the occasion. One guest described his rich Hungarian accent, combined with his brash Jewish humor, as suggesting a cross between Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jackie Mason.

Also included were approximately 70 relatives of Rubin and his wife, Yvonne. There were son, Frank; daughter, Rosie; old Army buddies; various Jewish War Veterans honchos; two former doctors; rabbis; and four previous Medal of Honor recipients.

The White House itself, as a structure and symbol, was part of what made this event noteworthy. There were spit-and-polish men and women in full dress uniforms at every step, opening doors, helping the elderly up the steps and saluting.

Even so mundane a task as answering nature's call has its thrills. To reach the men's room you have to walk through the presidential library; while the women's facilities are nestled behind a portrait gallery of the nation's first ladies.

At the ceremony, Bush seemed relieved to deal with a noncontroversial, upbeat topic; Rove bobbed and chatted animatedly; and Cheney appeared glum, perhaps because he was going in for knee surgery the following day.

The three men disappeared immediately after the ceremony, presumably to bone up on hurricanes, but not Rumsfeld. He stayed for the reception and worked the room like a city councilman running for reelection. Smiling and nodding, he posed for pictures, signed autographs and showed one amateur photographer how to use his camera.

After drinks, petit fours and paper napkins bearing the presidential seal, a female Army captain collected the guests and put them on buses for the trip to the Pentagon and Rubin's induction into the Hall of Heroes.

I wasn't prepared for it, but the day's most thrilling event lay just ahead. Our bus was preceded by two Pentagon police cars, flashing more lights than any July 4 fireworks, and magically Washington's jammed traffic parted like the Red Sea. A rushing sense of absolute power gripped me as gawking tourists pointed at our windows in awe, and snarling motorists cursed us as we sailed through red-lighted intersections.

Regrettably, the police cars declined my offer to join me on my next 5 p.m. jaunt down the Santa Monica Freeway.

After Rubin's induction into the Hall of Heroes, where his name was added to Medal of Honor recipients going back to the Civil War, the hospitable Pentagon laid on a handsome buffet.

The place was brimming with Army brass, none more pleasant than Maj. Elizabeth Robbins of the Army's media relations office, a winsome young lady who greeted me with a hearty, "Gut Shabbes."

The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Robbins is a West Point graduate and returned later to teach political science and media communications, while moonlighting as a volunteer Jewish lay leader.

Next day, the political coin flipped over.

From a staging area at the Ellipse, just south of the White House, a seemingly endless procession wound its way to protest the war in Iraq, in particular, and administration policies, in general. A well-attended synchronized march also took place in downtown Los Angeles, as well as in other major world cities.

The demonstrators marched and ambled 15 abreast, overflowing onto the sidewalks: the elderly and babes in arms, Vietnam War veterans and steel-drum bangers, sober-faced Midwesterners and nubile adolescents epithet-emblazoned T-shirts.

There were elaborate displays of huge peace doves, with white sheets as wings, and a 25-foot inflatable Bush doll with a Pinocchio nose, and signs with such slogans as "Drop Bush Not Bombs," "Make Levees Not War," "Visualize Compassionate Impeachment" and "Lobotomize Pat Robertson."

A small contingent waved PLO flags, and a few others displayed signs proclaiming, "Stop Occupation of Iraq, Don't Occupy Palestine" and "We Are All Palestinians."

Standing next to me was a quiet black woman and an exuberant white woman who were holding up the sign: "Another Lesbian Couple with Kids for Peace." They got lots of cheers and thumbs up from the passing parade.

Near the end walked a smiling, middle-age woman holding a small, hand-lettered placard with "Shalom[in Hebrew lettering] = Peace."

This column, The Wandering Jew, is the inaugural entry for a new feature that will allow for a more personal take on events that occur mostly, but not exclusively, in greater Los Angeles. The column provides a space for pieces that are slightly too detached to be called first person, but not quite straight journalism either.

The column title is intentionally ironic, referring both to the plant of the same name and the old anti-Semitic fable of the Jew who is cursed with immortality to forever wander the earth and bear witness to -- well, whatever. In this case, we lift the curse to offer a new perspective on the Jewish scene. Many contributions will come from our regular writers, but contributions are welcome.

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