“Because of the Jewish Holiday”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase from a newscaster in connection with the closing of Congress in the middle of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. This, I thought, can’t be good for the Jews.

So I checked the anti-Semitic web sites, and guess what? They are having a field day with it. Two percent of the country controls the government, etc.

It confirms the association in people’s minds between Jews and money. Not only do these Jews make fortunes on Wall Street, taking advantage of millions who don’t understand money, but when push comes to shove over what they’ve done, even the ones who are supposed to be public servants take a holiday.

Not really true, you say? Well, a lot of Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim and that Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9-11. So I am guessing that this Rosh Hashanah recess confirmed those people’s worst suspicions about the Jews.

I also have to wonder whether the recess was kosher. I vividly remember my childhood rabbi, Bernard Berzon, telling the story of a Jewish soldier who was ordered to fight on Yom Kippur. His rabbi, the chaplain in the field, gave him permission. Shot in the gut that day, he survived only because there was no food in his belly.

My young boy’s mind took away two lessons: First, if you are in a life-and-death struggle, no one expects you to observe the usual commandments. Even on the most sacred day of the year, do your duty to your country, and God will understand. Second, if you keep the commandments as best you can, God will take care of you.

I’m not saying I believe that; I’m saying it’s what I was taught, in an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, by a rabbi who was always rigorous but who understood the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. He knew that when they truly differ, it’s not the letter you follow.

According to the President, the Secretary of the Treasury, the head of the Federal Reserve, and the leaders of both major political parties, this was and is a once-in-a-century crisis. Not just the wealth of thousands, but the well-being of millions was at stake. Something had to be done, and it had to be done fast.

I’m not certain I believe that either, but most members of Congress said they did. So what, I have to wonder, were the Jews doing calling a recess for their holiday? It so happens that both Ede, the Muslim feast that ends Ramadan, and Navratri, the Hindu festival of nine nights honoring three benevolent goddesses, overlapped with Rosh Hashanah this year.

There are 29 Jews in the House (7%) and 13 in the Senate (13%). There are also two Muslims and two Buddhists in the House, and 16 Mormons. What would we have thought if Congress had gone into recess in the middle of this crisis because it was ten percent Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon? I can’t imagine we would say very complimentary things. I imagine we would say: Millions of people may suffer because of this delay. What kind of religion would make them put their country on hold in such a dire crisis?

The night the Dow fell 800 points three Jews—Larry King, Ben Stein, and Paul Krugman—were lined up in a row on a split screen on CNN. Ben Stein said:

“Congress should be called back into session immediately. The idea that we can’t have a session Tuesday or Wednesday because of the Jewish holidays is nonsense. We don’t have a state with an established religion in this country, and if we did it certainly wouldn’t be Judaism. So let’s get everybody back to work immediately. People work on Christmas, people work on Easter, people work on Sunday—get back to work.”

Larry King then said, “By the way . . . Happy New Year to all our Jewish friends, and it is the year 5769—we’re an old people.” Three Jews lined up discussing the financial fate of America and the world, on after the worst point-drop in the history of the stock market, while Congress goes home for the Jewish holiday.

I hope the convergence of festivals of three great religions—torn by two ancient hatreds–on a single day this year is an omen for the good, and that the coming year will bring a greater hope of peace. But I can’t help wondering: Wouldn’t God have preferred that the Jewish Representatives stay in the Capitol with their sleeves rolled up, taking care of their country? Did God need to see them in shul at such a moment?

We are an old people. As Isaiah said about Yom Kippur twenty-five centuries ago, after belittling sackcloth and ashes, "Is not this the fast I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him . . . Then shall thy light break forth as the morning . . . " (58:5-8)

Do we become a light unto the nations by putting our own religious needs first? Or by letting them know that we care more about the country and the world than about strict observance?

Happy New Year.

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