My grandfather relished in telling of his immigration to America. Previously Jorge, he decided to be called by the English variant “George” when, together with my grandmother, they stepped off a Dutch cargo boat that began its journey in their native Argentina.
My grandfather’s first birthday in America was a memorable one — a February 22nd par excellence.
That day, he observed a grand parade with the American pomp and grandeur he had always heard about in Buenos Aires. The procession declared that “George” was the greatest American to ever live. My grandfather would quip with pride and humor, “all of this for me! Can you believe this is how America welcomed your zeide, Jorge?”
Of course, this was a parade to honor a different George — not Steinberg — but Washington, whose February 22nd birthday was once a cherished holiday. It’s now celebrated as “President’s Day.”
My late grandfather was not the first South American Jewish immigrant who rallied around George Washington. Back in 1792, the governor-general of Suriname wrote to the first president that a local Jew, David Nassy, “begged me to have the honor of remitting by him these lines to your Excellency … and the desire of living in a Country where, without regarding the difference of Religion in Individuals, personal merit is attended to, have led him to a determination of going to reside in the United States under the government of your Excellency.” The request was granted by Washington, and Nassy gratefully offered the president his “Services, [i]f I can render you any.”
Even before the first president’s famous epistle to the Touro Synagogue, “to bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance,” the Jews of America knew that Washington was their man. He invited the rabbi of New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation to act as a formal clergyman at the first Inauguration. This marked the first time since the ancient fall of Jerusalem that a Jewish minister performed in an official capacity for a head of state.
In this vein, in August 1789, Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome in Richmond, Virginia, opened the celebration of its new synagogue constitution with the toast: “The President of the United States, may his administration secure to the citizens of America the Liberty obtained by his valor.”
During the American Revolution, in the winter camps at Valley Forge, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia, Michael Hart, was a corporal in the Continental Army. His daughter wrote the following in her diary about her father’s wartime service: “Let it be remembered that Michael Hart was a Jew, practically, pious, a Jew reverencing and strictly observant of the Sabbath and Festivals; dietary laws were also adhered to, although he was compelled to be his own Shochet. Mark well that he, Washington … even during a short sojourn became for the hour the guest of the worthy Jew.”
So large has Washington loomed in Jewish hearts that this tale, absent details of the only kosher meal he is known to have had, morphed into folklore unlike any other. One iteration reads: “It is mid-winter at Valley Forge. Everyone is cold. Frostbite is widespread. Everyone has given up hope. George Washington is depressed. One night, looking for inspiration, George goes for a walk through the camp. He finds one Jewish member of the Continental Army lighting the haunkkiya … the soldier explains Hanukkah, Judah Maccabee, and everything to George, who re-finds his courage in the process — enough to stand up when the boat crosses the Delaware. Later, the first President sends our Jewish soldier a silver Menorah … as a gift of appreciation, along with a letter which says, ‘Judaism has a lot to offer the world. You should be proud to be a Jew.’”
The alert reader will note that the Delaware Crossing occurred a year before Valley Forge, one of many reasons to doubt the story’s veracity. But never mind that. This Monday, as we honor the man who has long been an inspiration to the Jews, let’s celebrate Washington’s life, legacy, and ideals. As Purim approaches with its account of the political fragility Jews have endured through the ages, let’s dedicate ourselves to the memory of that great statesman who reigns unparalleled in the annals of history for securing Jewish freedom, safety, prosperity, and the rights of all Americans. Happy President’s Day!