Washington. It’s a bumpy ride for watching news unfold — bad, good, and bad again.
The feel-good Jewish gathering at the White House in May, on an otherwise pleasant, and even progressive afternoon, unintentionally drew some awful news: a rabbi covering the event for his news blog happened to spot on the lawn then-columnist Helen Thomas (not an invitee), who spewed forth her revolting comments about Jews and Israel. Thomas’s remarks sounded like creepily familiar Jew-hatred (“Jews should get out of Israel and go back to where they came from: Poland, Germany…”). As you likely know, she has since resigned her press positions.
This ugliness, which surfaced a week later on YouTube, had no impact on the formal White House event, created to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month. The reception was, in fact, a delightful sea change in the Jewish world, and could have been entitled Not the Usual Suspects.
When I received my invitation to the gathering, I admit that my first thought was that this was going to be just another Jewish convention with hundreds — maybe thousands — of people, all known to one another, representing the presidents of this and that Jewish organization, the heavy hitters, a careful balance of rabbis and the heads of Jewish academic institutions, boldfaced names from the organized Jewish community. My skepticism was only reinforced when I phoned in my RSVP to the White House office listed in the invitation and its automated outgoing message announced, “If you are calling to reply about Asian-American Heritage Month, press one. If you are calling for Jewish-American Heritage Month, press two…” Rolling my eyes, I pressed two, and over-enunciated my pertinent data into the machine.
But the gathering, small by the standards of Jewish conferences, foiled my cynicism. And that of others, too. People milling about in those East Wing rooms were overheard saying, again and again, “I can’t believe I don’t know more people here.” This mix was decidedly unexpected, since no guest list of the 200 or so invitees was ever released. There was a slight we-are-all-at- Sinai vibe. Lots of women — though of course there should and could have been more. Youngish (under 40) Jewish activists of all stripes. Musicians. Scientists. Artists. Foodies. Sports figures (I was really challenged here, since there were — alas — no name tags, how was I supposed to know who those tall, tanned, fit and unfamiliar-looking people were?). Around every corner of the various lounges, with their huge paintings of presidents and first ladies, around every one of the several bars and kosher-meatladen buffet tables, around the display cases with Jewish artifacts on loan from the Library of Congress and elsewhere, you were likely to spot people who looked vaguely familiar but who, out of context, it was tough to I.D.
My own (partial) list: Singer Debbie Friedman; Times columnist Tom Friedman (no relation, but they did go to Camp Herzl together in Minnesota, turns out); Carl Bernstein; Joan Nathan; Peggy Pearlstein, head of the Hebraic Section at the Library of Congress; JTA publisher Mark Joffe; Nancy Falchuk, president of Hadassah; pop vocalist Regina Spektor (who played and sang for us, and for the President and Michelle Obama); Rabbi Alyssa Stanton, the first African American woman rabbi, who declaimed Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (you met Stanton in Lilith’s pages); Sarah Lefton, creator of the weekly online cartoon series G-dCast (ditto); Al Franken; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Rep. Nita Lowey of New York; Shawn Landres, of Jumpstart; writer Abigail Pogrebin; Heeb magazine editor Josh Neuman; Gail Reimer of the Jewish Women’s Archive; Lou Cove, Executive Director of Reboot; Esther Safran Foer, who heads the hip, restored Sixth & I Synagogue in D.C.; Judy Blume; and Sandy Koufax, who was the undisputed star of the event. Oh, and did I mention Elana Kagan? The delightful diversity of ages and backgrounds and colors and talents and work lives indeed felt like a tribute.
But, Washington (and life) being what it is, my pleasure in this gathering was pretty short lived.
On the domestic front, this season the U.S. State Department released its report on T.I.P., the clumsy term for trafficking in persons, clearly a scourge not exclusive to other places, other times. Today, more people are being held as slaves than ever before, with slavery almost as profitable as the drug trade. Lilith’s reports on this subject worldwide go back more than 10 years, and the grim statistics are getting grimmer, with allegations of slavery even in some diplomatic households in Washington. Watch upcoming issues of Lilith, and visit the Lilith website (Lilith.org) for more on what you can do about this — including understanding how demand (for diamonds, chocolate, domestic labor, exotic sex, the parts that go into our cell phones) fuels human trafficking. I was stunned, naively, to learn these unwelcome truths. You may be too.