Last Friday, when declaring May Jewish Heritage Month, President Obama had this to say:
“The Jewish American story is an essential chapter of the American narrative. It is one of refuge from persecution; of commitment to service, faith, democracy, and peace; and of tireless work to achieve success. As leaders in every facet of American life — from athletics, entertainment, and the arts to academia, business, government, and our Armed Forces — Jewish Americans have shaped our nation and helped steer the course of our history. We are a stronger and more hopeful country because so many Jews from around the world have made America their home.”
To quote Dick Cheney, “so?”
Everything the president says in that statement is true, but with a little massaging, he could just as easily say the same for every ethnic group in America.
And that’s why this business of declaring heritage months for Jews or anyone else must stop. Where will it all lead? Who gets to decide which ethnic or religious group is worthy of a month? And who came up with the bright idea that setting aside one month — just one month — was a great way to honor a group of people?
When interviewed by “60 Minutes” in 2005, Morgan Freeman, one of the leading black actors in Hollywood today, was asked about his opinion of Black History Month. In a word, he called the whole concept “ridiculous.”
“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” he went on to say. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
We should listen to Morgan. Jewish heritage rates more than a month. Like black history, it is part and parcel to the American experience and needs no crutch, such as a month, to convince the average American of its worth.
When first proposed by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) in 2005, and first celebrated in 2006, Jewish Heritage Month may well have seemed like a great way to inspire interest in the Jewish experience, especially among Jews. The Library of Congress, the National Archives and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum all developed their own education programs to celebrate our new month.
In truth, though, it’s misleading to presume that Jewish Heritage Month triggered a groundswell of interest in all things Jewish. Likely your congregation isn’t seeing an uptick in synagogue attendance; the Jewish Community Center isn’t turning away potential members; and, locally at least, there’s been no report of a massive surge in Jews checking out library books, taking heritage tours, joining Hebrew language classes or anything that would celebrate Jewish culture.
By designating one month for Jewish history, we signal that somehow Jewish achievements won’t be appreciated without it. As a Jew, I find that demeaning.
There’s only one way to pass on Jewish heritage, the hard way — a lifelong partnership between parents, schools and synagogues; mutual respect and communication between the streams of Judaism; a rank and file commitment to keep alive something that’s more than 4,000 years old. When all those stars are in alignment, we’ll have no need for one measly month.
(Lee Chottiner, the executive editor of The Jewish Chronicle, can be reached at email@example.com.)