June 2, 2010
I recently officiated at a ceremony where both Presidents Bush and their first ladies were in attendance. They hardly ever come to private events, so this was very special for everyone who was at the wedding. My wife, Liat, and I wondered if we would get to meet them or not. We ended up not only meeting them, but having some very pleasant one-on-one time with the forty-third president.
|Rabbi Gruber, in white, and his wife Liat in black and white sundress, speaking with President George W. Bush. The elder President Bush is on the left.
During the ceremony I recited the customary seven wedding blessings in English, after which I chanted the sixty-seventh Psalm in Hebrew (in the tune specially reserved for Saturday nights), and recited it in English. I talked about how on Saturday evenings many Jews chant this Psalm, and how it contains many of the same themes and actual words found in the most ancient copy of scripture that archeologists have found in the Holy Land, the priestly blessing.
After the ceremony, President George W. Bush congratulated me for a job well done from about 12 feet away, and I thanked him. He smiled and motioned with his finger that he wanted me to come over to him. I then had the privilege of shaking hands with the two presidents and their first ladies, who all congratulated me on doing a great job. That would have been an experience in and of itself.
Then the elder Bushes went to take pictures and talk to other guests, and I introduced Liat to President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush. The former first lady then went to join the others, and the former president spent the next ten minutes talking to us! He asked how long we had lived in Dallas, where we were from and about our children. He was specifically curious about Liat's ancestry. (Because she is of both North African and Eastern European extraction, many people find her hard to "place.") He was tickled by the fact that our youngest son shared a birthday with him, and playfully referred to him later in the conversation as "George." (His siblings are already giving him a hard time over that one…)
Since we mentioned that Liat was born in Israel, and I grew up there, we talked about the Jewish State. He confirmed a story I had once read about Sharon in 1998 taking him on a helicopter tour of the 1967 borders, and specifically pointing out the area where Israel within these borders was the narrowest, only about eight kilometers wide. To this the then Texas Governor had remarked, "We have driveways in Texas that are longer than that." He talked about the real mutual affection between himself, and the man he now referred to as "the old tank driver."
Our discussion ended with Mrs. Laura Bush calling him over to join her for some photos. (That just goes to show you that even in that family there is a well defined hierarchy...) With that, he shook our hands, and thanked me once again for a job well done. We thanked him for his kindness, and went to join the wedding party.
The popular notion has always been that, politics aside, the forty-third president is a mensch, and a very genuine and down to earth fellow. Liat and I found that to be very true indeed. Yet, without becoming too grandiose here, I could not help reflecting on a deeper aspect of this brief personal experience.
Many years ago, the first President of our republic, George Washington, proclaimed a notion that was entirely new and unpracticed in the world of that time: equality and freedom regardless of one's religious faith. He wrote to the Jews of Newport, R.I., that "happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens." He added still, at a time when my ancestors in Eastern Europe could only dream of freedom, "May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
No one knew how long this new idea of freedom and equality would survive. Many scholars contend that the Founding Fathers probably would be surprised that we still live under the same Constitution, much less one amended to provide freedom to more and more people. Over these same years the Jewish people have seen their share of friendly regimes turn against them, with succession and the turning over of governments frequently not boding well for them. I dare say very few of those Newport Jews would have imagined the ideas of President Washington not only surviving, but two successors of that famous letter writer attending a wedding, where Jewish blessings were chanted, after which one of those successors would leisurely chat with the chanting rabbi and his wife. Yet here we were all the same.