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–by Joanna Hallac

As an American Jew who is preparing to celebrate the upcoming High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I thought it might be nice to take a look at the history of Jewish members of the U.S. Congress, as well as the Jewish members there today. While only 1.7% of the American population currently identifies itself as Jewish (not even 1% worldwide), approximately 7% of the members of the 112th Congress—6% of the House and 12% of the Senate—is made up of practicing Jews, which is a rather remarkable number. Of those current Jewish members of Congress (37 in total), only one, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), is a Republican; 24 are Democrats, and two are Independents.

So what about the history of Jewish Americans in the U.S. Congress? The first Jewish member of the House of Representatives was Lewis Charles Levin of Pennsylvania, who was elected in 1844 as an American Party candidate. He served two terms before losing in 1850 and moving back to PA to practice law. The first Jewish member of the United States Senate was David Levy Yulee, a Democrat from Florida first elected in 1845, running for the Senate after having helped Florida gain admission to the Union; he served until 1851 and again from 1855 to 1861.

David Levy Yulee (uncredited photo from Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress)

According to The Jewish Virtual Library, Yulee’s father, a Moroccan Jew named Moses Elias Levy, made a fortune in timber in the Caribbean and then bought 50,000 acres of land in Jacksonville, FL, hoping to create a New Jerusalem for Jewish settlers. (It is interesting to note that Yulee, being the son of a Moroccan Jew, was Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi. For those who do not know, Sephardic Jews are generally from North Africa, the Middle East, and areas along the Mediterranean, while Ashkenazi Jews are predominantly from Eastern Europe and Russia.) Unlike most Jews who throughout history have opposed slavery, Yulee himself was a staunch supporter of slavery and secession and joined the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. He seems to have identified as a Southerner first, a Jew second.

The first Jewish woman in Congress was Florence Prag Kahn, a Republican from California, who served in the House from 1925 until 1937. Perhaps one of the most famous and influential women to ever serve in the House (from any religion) was Bella Abzug, a Jewish American woman who represented the 20th district of New York from 1971-1977. Abzug made a name for herself as an attorney long before she entered the hallowed halls of Congress. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, she frequently represented those individuals brought before the House Un-American Activities Committees (HUAC) by Senator Joe McCarthy for allegedly being communists. She also defended a black man from Mississippi, Willy McGee, accused of raping a white woman. Despite Abzug’s efforts and two stays of execution by the Supreme Court, McGee was eventually executed. Abzug could be a controversial figure in Congress, but there is no doubt about the level of her influence. She summed herself up best when she said, “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am — and this ought to be made very clear at the outset — I am a very serious woman.” That she was.

Bella Abzug (Library of Congress)

On the Senate side, the first Jewish American women arrived at the same time, from the same state, and they’re still there today: Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were both elected to the Senate from California in 1992. Boxer had been a member of the House of Representatives prior to being elected to the Senate; Feinstein, meanwhile, was the first woman (of any religion) mayor of San Francisco prior to her Senate bid. While you may think they are the only pair of Jewish senators from the same state, guess again: Joe Lieberman (I) and Richard Blumenthal (D) are both Jewish and both representing Connecticut, my home state. Lieberman announced earlier this year that he will not seek re-election in 2012, bringing to an end a storied career that saw him come ever so close to becoming the first Jewish vice president in our nation’s history when he was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. Despite his popularity back then, Lieberman’s continued support for the war in Iraq did not sit well with the heavily Democratic constituents in Connecticut. Having lost the Democratic primary to challenger Ned Lamont back in 2006, Lieberman ended up running as an Independent and won; he continues to caucus with the Democrats.

Another notable current woman Jewish member of Congress is Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who in 2004 became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress from Florida. In addition, she is the first Jewish woman to hold the post of chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (the third woman overall); lastly, upon first entering Congress in early 2005, Wasserman-Schultz introduced a resolution calling on the President to declare a Jewish American Heritage Month, which later passed and was so declared by President Bush in May 2006 (and every subsequent year since). Her continued attention to issues important to Jews and women cannot be overlooked, as she has been a champion of both throughout her life in public service.

Lastly, on a somewhat related note, with the High Holiday season about to commence, I often find myself thinking about food, of course. Earlier in the post, I mentioned the difference between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews is a geographic one; however, it also factors into things like cooking and even how you recite Hebrew prayers. For instance, I am a Sephardic Jew—my father’s family is from Lebanon and Syria—and our family recipes are far different in some respects than many of my Ashkenazi friends. I happen to be partial to Sephardic cooking, but I’m obviously biased on the subject. To end this post, I’ve decided to share my family’s recipe for brisket (see below), which we have every year on Rosh Hashanah. Feel free to share any of your favorite Rosh Hashanah (or even Passover) recipes with us, or tell us how you break the fast after Yom Kippur! (We would always have bagels, lox, egg salad and tuna, etc. at our family friend’s home) Enjoy and L’shana tova, everyone! (That means “for a good year” for all of you gentiles out there!)

Brisket of Beef: A Hallac Family Recipe

**you can make it a day in advance and heat it up just before eating**
• 1 large, single cut brisket of beef
• 1 can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup
• 1 packet of dry French Onion dip mix
• 3 or 4 large carrots, sliced and cut into carrot “sticks”
• 1 green bell pepper, chopped into approx. 1-inch pieces
• 1 yellow onion, chopped into approx. 1-inch pieces

Cooking instructions:

• Preheat the oven to 325 degrees
• Put the brisket in a roasting pan and cover it with all of the remaining ingredients
• Cover with foil and cook for 2 ½ to 3 hours (depending upon the size of the brisket) or until very tender (check it after 2 hours; also, if it’s a very large brisket you may also want to turn it after 1 ½ or 2 hours and then cook it on the other side for another hour)
• Once it’s done cooking, remove it from the oven, keep it covered and allow it to cool slightly
• After it’s cooled, put the meat and most of the carrots aside (I usually put it on a cutting board, covered, until I’m ready to slice it, unless I’m doing it the day before and then it all goes into the refrigerator) and then pour the sauce, with the pieces of green pepper and onion and a few of the carrots, through a strainer into a bowl. When straining the sauce, be sure to use the back of a spoon to push the vegetables into the strainer so that the good flavors get through to the sauce without chunks of the veggies getting into it. Once the sauce cools more, you can skim off any fat from it as well
• You will want to slice the brisket and, when ready to eat, pour the sauce over it and heat it up to your desired temperature (if you made it the day before, I would suggest at least 30 minutes at 350 degrees). Once heated, put onto a serving dish and place the “reserved carrots” along with the meat and you’re ready to eat!