Shabbat Surfing: Presidents’ Day Edition

 In honor of Presidents’ Day on Monday, this week’s Shabbat Surfing brings you a sampling of fun facts about the Jews and the Racing Presidents.

Image from Flickr user Scott Ableman via

George Washington wrote his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit the state after its ratification of the Constitution. Citizens of Newport, including Congregation Yeshuat Israel of Touro Synagogue, greeted Washington and offered their support of his presidency. Washington’s famous reply not only thanked the Jews of Newport for their hospitality, but also reassured them of religious freedom.   

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson appointed the first Jew to a federal post when he appointed Reuben Etting as United States Marshal for Maryland.  Etting’s appointment is also significant because at the time, Jews were unable to hold elected office in Maryland due to a required oath of Christianity.  

Abraham Lincoln was in office when rabbis were first able to serve as chaplains in the United States Army. Lincoln’s original chaplaincy bill stipulated that chaplains must be “regularly ordained clergyman of some Christian denomination” was replaced by its amended version that a chaplain must be a “minister of some religious denomination” in 1862.  

Teddy Roosevelt really won when he appointed Oscar S. Straus to his Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce and Labor. According to the 1906 New York Times article regarding his appointment, Straus “will be the first Jew ever appointed to a Cabinet position by a President of the United States. Judah P. Benjamin was in the Confederate Cabinet under President Davis.”

Required Reading for Rick Sanchez and Jon Stewart

What to make of Rick Sanchez’s bizarre and self-destructive anti-Semitic outburst? Well, Jon Stewart, who was the Jewish synecdoche in his rant, made some gentle fun of it and Rick Sanchez on his show Monday night. Yes, he made Sanchez look foolish, but Sanchez had already done that on his own. At the end, he pretty much lets him off the hook by stating, “I’m not even sure Sanchez believes what he’s saying.” There were some follow-up columns today, word of an apology and the whole affair seems ready to fade as its Friday to Monday lifespan expires.

Capitalism and the JewsBut missing in the ensuing fallout has been the more delicate question, not of whether Rick Sanchez believed what he was saying, but why, throughout the ages have similar charges been levelled at Jews and believed in the first place? Why is it that the refrain of “Jews control (fill in the blank: CNN, the media, the banks, all of capitalism)” has such durability?

There are two parts to that answer, and the first is the acknowledgement that Jews have been very succesful in the media and in Western capitalism generally. Prominently successful? Definitely. Disproportionately successful? Perhaps. And at times that success has made Jews a target for groups that are dissatisfied and under duress (and when your show is getting the shove for Eliot Spitzer’s comeback, you’re definitely under duress). While that explanation satisfies the sociological explanation of how one group comes to blame another, it sidesteps a more delicate question: Why are Jews more or more prominently successful in capitalist societies?

That is the question at the heart of Jerry Muller’s suddenly all-too-timely Capitalism and the Jews which is being featured on October 25 as a part of our Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The title itself is provocative because the Jewish community has been reluctant to discuss its own success so publicly. Muller writes in his introduction, “some Jews regard the public discussion of Jews and capitalism as intrinsically impolitic, as if conspiratorial fantasies about Jews and money can be eliminated by prudent silence.” In its willingness to look studiously at the history of Jews and the rise of capitalism, this book reminds me a lot of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler, which tackled the history of the Jewish moguls who established the film industry as an economic and cultural force in American life.

While Gabler structured his book around the biographies of the Hollywood moguls and the studios they created, Muller breaks his study into four sections: “The Long Shadow of Usury,” which examines the rise of capitalism and Jews’ early roles in it; “The Jewish Response to Capitalism” which further explains the success of Jews in modern capitalist societies and the communal response to this dominant ism; “Radical Anticapitalism” which looks at what Muller calls “the dialectic of disaster; anti-Semitism led Jews to prominent positions in Communist movements, and their very salience in a movement that threatened existing society provided new fuel for anti-Semitism.” Finally, Muller looks at the sometimes lethal mix of capitalism and nationalism — and the important ways in which nationalistic kinship can both shape and be shaped by economic development and disaster.

Of course, a logical exposition of the history and consequences of Jews and capitalism should be all that’s needed to put to rest these silly conspiracy theories and fury-fueled anti-Semitic rants.

Then again, maybe Jon Stewart should have Jerry Muller on his show. They’d have a lot to talk about.

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