President Bush has declared May as “Jewish Heritage Month,” proclaiming that
Since arriving in 1654, Jewish Americans have achieved great success, strengthened our country and helped shape our way of life. Through their deep commitment to faith, family and community, Jewish Americans remind us of a basic belief that guided the founding of this nation: That there is an Almighty who watches over the affairs of men and values every life.
Uh, thanks for the compliment, Dubya, but the congresswoman who worked so hard to get the proclamation through, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, took extra special care to leave the religious-y parts out of it:
“There will be no religious emphasis,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It will be purely cultural and educational, so we didn’t want it tied to any particular Jewish holiday.”
Leave it to the Jesus president to get all God-ish about “heritage.” The man couldn’t have eaten a bagel in front of the cameras and left it that? (Not to mention his wording: the Almighty watches over the affairs men, but the women are on their own? Don’t even get me started on that hypocritical “valuing every life” nonsense.)
This surely begs a round of the never-ending “Is Judaism a religion or a culture” game, but the Sephardic Jewish origins of America’s first settlers is so much more interesting, dontcha think?
I recently read Elizabeth Hirschman’s Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe In America, and according to her research, crypto-Jews may have been this country’s first immigrants. Though the book is a dry read for all of its scholarly references and academic charts, Hirschman (who thought she was a WASP until her DNA tests came back Jewish, although with a last name like that I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t have been a little suspicious) makes a solid case that the mysterious people of the Appalachians and their descendants (including Abraham Lincoln, Davey Crockett and Elvis Presley) can trace their roots back to the Jews of Spain and Portugal. She even supports the claim that these Jews and their similarly oppressed Muslim neighbors started the Baptist church. (More here and here.)
Perhaps somewhere in the “Jewish American Heritage Month” of May it would be appropriate to hear a bit more about the Melungeons, but this Ashkenazicentric society of ours has yet to reclaim the diversity of Judaism.