The month of May has been designated Jewish American Heritage Month in the United States. The resolution creating this honor was introduced in 2005 by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Florida) and Senator Arlen Spector (z”l) (Pennsylvania). (Previous resolutions and proclamations had been passed for a week or a month in prior years; this resolution would stand perpetually.) Passed on April 20, 2006, and signed by President George W. Bush, the resolution encourages the current President to issue a proclamation to recognize the more than 350 years of Jewish contributions to American history and culture, as noted by the Jewish Museum of Florida and various community leaders of the time.
This past week we were reminded that Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech on the last day of Passover, April 9, 1912, right here in Pittsburgh (at the Tree of Life, then on Craft Avenue), discussing human rights and social justice. He understood that Passover also reminds us of those who are not yet free, and to improve life for all. When former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette David Shribman wrote about that speech recently, and of TR’s drawing lines among Lincoln and freedom and Jews, it reminded us of two things, one of which we note serves well for this coming Jewish American Heritage Month.
First, good friend and frequent portrayer of TR, actor Ron Wisniski, reminded me of a fine speech delivered by then Governor of New York Roosevelt which has been titled “Strenuous Life,” delivered on April 10, 1899, in Chicago. I went back to read it and find it applicable to today. In the speech he emphasizes that trials and tribulations make us stronger, that those who have difficulties often come out ahead, though they also deserve the assistance of others. The text of the speech is available online, and worth reading, though not without controversy and much to think about. (Roosevelt was the first President to appoint a Jewish cabinet member, and he was a supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.)
That speech, though, further reminded me of a pertinent story about Mr. Roosevelt, which took place in 1895 when he was Police Commissioner of New York. As told by TR in his autobiography, a vehement anti-Semitic preacher from Berlin, one Rector Hermann Ahlwardt, was planning to bring his negative crusade to New York. The Jews of the city were, as he put it, “much excited and asked me to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection.”
Giving the matter due consideration, Mr. Roosevelt refused to thus make Ahlwardt a martyr; as he put it, the “proper thing to do was to make him ridiculous.” He detailed for the rector’s protection a Jewish sergeant and some 40 Jewish police officers. As Roosevelt put it, “It was the most effective possible answer; and incidentally it was an object lesson to our people, whose greatest need it is to learn that there must be no division by class hatred, whether this hatred be that of creed against creed, nationality against nationality, section against section, or men of one social or industrial condition against men of another… We must ever judge each individual on his own conduct and merits, and not on his membership in any class, whether that class be based on theological, social, or industrial considerations.”
Happy Jewish American Heritage Month. If there is anyone you would like us to feature this month, please let us know.