May Celebrates Jewish Achievements By Rabbi Judy Chessin
Did you know that May is Jewish American Heritage month? President George W. Bush designated the month of May for an annual recognition and celebration of Jewish American achievements in and contributions to the United States of America. The resolution passed unanimously, in the House of Representatives in December 2005 and in the Senate in February 2006 – a miracle in and of itself!
A coalition of organizations facilitates national programming, events and a remarkable website (www.jahm.us) in celebration of the month known as JAHM. They also choose an annual Jewish theme for focus each year.
This May is dedicated to American Jews and Music. The year 2018 would have been the 100th birthday of renowned Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Likewise this year is the centenary of Irving Berlin’s release of the classic anthem “God Bless America.”
Jews have made major contributions to music in nearly every society in which we have lived. But the relative religious freedom of the United States allowed disproportionate Jewish contributions to the field.
Just consider composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, an Eastern European immigrant widely considered one of the greatest song-writers in American history. His hits included: “Easter Parade;” “White Christmas;” “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better;” “There’s no Business like Show Business;” and of course, “God Bless America.”
Remarkably, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote and directed symphonies, ballets, operas, musicals (including “West Side Story”), and film scores. In 1967, he conducted a concert on Mount Scopus to commemorate the Reunification of Jerusalem. In 1964, he composed his Kaddish Symphony dedicated to the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy and, in 1989, he conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin as a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Jewish musical talent abounds in modern pop culture as well with contemporary stars as such as Bob Dylan, Carole King, Paul Simon and Regina Spektor, Pink and Billy Joel. While Joel, like so many of these artists, considers himself a secular Jew, last August he wore a yellow Star of David on his jacket to protest antisemitic incidents at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier that month.
While Jewish identity is a personal matter, let us consider JAHM as a time to reflect upon the remarkable accomplishments of American Jewry. Rabbi Gary Zola, director of the Jacob Rader Marcus American Jewish Archives on the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, reminds us: “Today, perhaps more than ever, we should bear in mind the wisdom of Walt Whitman’s powerful observation: America’s greatness is due to its being ‘not merely a nation’ but a teeming nation of nations….” How blessed is our generation of Jews to live in this land of freedom and pluralism. No matter what challenges we face currently, our ancestors were not always so lucky!
Happy Jewish American Heritage Month,
Rabbi Judy Chessin