The first thing I discovered about Capitol Hill is that it's the human equivalent of an anthill. Throughout the day, hundreds, if not thousands, of people wend their way underground from one Congressional building to the next using subterranean passageways that reminded me of the white-tiled tunnels that once existed in the New York City subway system.
Walking along below the Cannon House Office Building until I reached the Rayburn House Office Building, I took the elevator up one floor to the large conference room where I would be addressing members of Congress and their Staffs on the subject of Holocaust rescuers. In my briefcase was a speech that I'd worked hard on. Not as hard, though, as I'd worked on my book The Heart Has Reasons, and my book was the reason I had been invited. So I was hoping I was ready. But I didn't know for what or for whom.
I have no D.C. political connections, and rarely watch C-SPAN. When someone with a house.gov email address named Paul Teller sent me a message praising The Heart Has Reasons and inviting me to speak to members of Congress and their Staffs, it came as a complete surprise.
I googled Teller and found that he is the Executive Director of the Republican Study Committee, and that he took a lot of flak last summer for sending emails out to Republican legislators urging them to vote against the debt proposal of their own leader, Speaker John Boehner. "Fire him, fire him," the GOPers chanted to Teller's boss, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, in a surreal closed-door meeting of the RSC, but Rep. Jordan stood by Teller. And now this gutsy young conservative was inviting me, a HuffPo blogger (need I say more?), into his D.C. orbit for reasons I didn't fully understand but which I didn't doubt were sincere.
I suggested that the most apposite time for my talk would be Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), which was coming up in a few months. Paul would be out of town then, so we planned on April 18, the day before. I worked on my forty-minute speech for several weeks in advance of the trip, but then stayed up all night rewriting it on the eve before I flew to D.C. Would the words I composed on my backlit MacBook in the darkness of my bedroom while my wife lay sleeping have resonance in the marbled halls of Congress?
As it turns out: yes. After the event, I declared on my Facebook page: "It's done. I hit Congress with a bolt of lightning this morning." It's true, I did feel something like electricity pass through me as I neared the end of my speech. At the same time, it was clear that these are extremely busy people who are exposed daily to massive amounts of information. Would my points "stick," or did I merely add to their info surfeit? I didn't know for sure, but I did know that it was an American Dream come true that the book I'd written, though it received little attention from the media, could lead to an invitation to address the nation's top lawmakers solely on the strength of its content. And so, it was deeply gratifying to look around the room and see interested and receptive faces, among them my own Congressman Richard Hanna, from New York.
Representative Hanna had come up to me before the talk and introduced himself. Soft-spoken with a kindly light in his eyes, he asked if I would sign the five copies of The Heart Has Reasons he had previously agreed to privately purchase. When he mentioned that he was going to give one of them to a Holocaust survivor, I asked the person's name, intending to inscribe the book. However, he thought I was asking him for his own name, which he quietly stated--or rather, restated--without taking the least bit of offense at my apparent dimwittedness. It is at such unguarded moments that character shines through, and I couldn't help but be impressed with Representative Hanna's during the few minutes we were able to chat.
Another Congressman present at my talk was Representative Billy Long, a big man whose broad face cracked a smile as wide as his home state of Missouri during a story I told in which a Holocaust rescuer realizes, after a troop of Nazi soldiers have stormed into her home to search it, that she had left an illegal Dutch Resistance newspaper lying on her dining room table. Immediately she offered to make them something hot to drink, and proceeded to light her wood stove with the underground newspaper. Representative Long seemed to appreciate this woman's clever thinking under duress.
After the talk, I signed books and chatted with Rep. Long's Deputy Chief of Staff, Curtis Trent, as well as with several other staffers including Andrew Shaw, Legislative Director for Representative Scott Garrett of New Jersey, and Kristine Michalson, Legislative Aide for Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado. I also had an engaging conversation with Renée Doyle, Legislative Assistant to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. I'd noticed Ms. Doyle several times during my speech because she seemed riveted by what I was saying and her eyes teared up during some of the stories I told about the rescuers.
That night I spoke at Agudas Achim, a large synagogue in Alexandria, VA. I should have guessed that any big synagogue close to D.C. would have some major political players, but it still came as a surprise when I was told--thankfully, after the fact--that Howard Kohr had been present, the Executive Director of AIPAC, the hard-line conservative, and immensely powerful, Jewish lobby. I found it gratifying to know Mr. Kohr was present, because my own views on Israel are better articulated by the progressive Jewish lobby J Street. In other words, Mr. Kohr did not step into an echo chamber.... he must have been surprised to learn that one of my ideas as to how we might best honor the memory of the Six Million is to shore up our civil liberties so that we remain a country that can offer political refugees as much today in the way of protection from government intrusion and abuse as it did my grandparents.
The next afternoon I had the honor of addressing a packed room full of intelligent and inquisitive listeners at the Library of Congress. This time I felt, despite some technical issues with the slideshow, that I'd really connected. I guess the audience did too.... after the talk, I quickly sold out all twenty or so copies of my book that I'd brought with me. And it is wonderful that the talk was taped and will eventually be available as a streaming video on the Library of Congress website. What most touched me, however, was having the opportunity to meet Liz, a LofC employee who had been hidden in Holland as a child. She was so choked up by the talk that she could hardly speak; I just gave her a hug and sat with her after everyone had left. She explained that she has always tried to figure out why the people who helped her did what they did, how they could have found it in their hearts to be so generous, and that my talk had proved valuable in her quest for answers.
At Leisure World in Silver Springs, I spoke to a group of about a hundred elders through a program organized by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. Here I met two "hidden children," and got into an extended conversation with one of them, a gentleman in his nineties who is now a professor emeritus at Washington Law School. As with certain other elders I have met, he remains "sharp as a tack," and I was pleased that he shared my concern about the dismantling of our civil liberties since 9/11.
I had done another gig at the JCC itself earlier in the week at which time I also gave a presentation to an elder group. There I encountered an amusing fellow who spoke very loudly and slowly with what I thought might be a Bronx accent, "Can you give me the name and address of a needy 'righteous gentile'? I just want to send a few bucks every month to a needy 'righteous gentile'--direct, not through some organization." I liked his spirit and am going to see if I can track one down for him.
Speaking at Bet Mispachah, Washington's LGBT Jewish congregation was a fitting end to my speaking tour. I wish that people who are ignorant when it comes to the gay community could have seen this respectful and respectable group of worshippers, seeming like any other congregation, except for them being particularly warm and welcoming. Perhaps as members of a minority that continues to face discrimination and condemnation, Bet Mispachah's congregants hold more tightly to the things that really matter in life, community being high on the list. In any case, they treated me wonderfully and, again, I met a "hidden child" afterwards, an elder who volunteers as a docent at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and who has spent a lifetime learning about the circumstances that led to him having to be hidden from the Nazis at a tender age.
As my American Airlines flight angled out of Reagan National Airport, I gazed one last time at the Capitol and the Washington Monument below, and felt a surge of patriotism, even as I shook my head over the fact that we Americans seem not to fully appreciate what we have. It isn't the buildings and monuments: we have the greatest Constitution on Earth, and, if you haven't checked them out lately, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights really rock! We have so much to live up to in light of the amazingness of these documents, but instead many seek to pull our democracy down to a level that George Washington and the other Framers would have abhorred. I'd like to think that my six talks in the D.C. area did a bit to move things in the right direction.... little seeds I scattered amid the nation's capital. But whether they will germinate remains to be seen.
Regardless, I'd like to thank Paul Teller and Rick Eberstadt on Capitol Hill; Ann Brener and Peggy Perlstein at the Library of Congress; Joel and Meryl Goldhammer at Agudas Achim; Meryl Tractman and Kandy Hutman at the JCC of Greater Washington; and Sarajane Garten at Bet Mispachah. Thanks also to master editor Alice Truax, as well as to Barbara Jacobson and Melissa Klein for invaluable assistance behind the scenes. Finally a big thank you to all those who contributed funds that enabled me to give away copies of The Heart Has Reasons to members of Congress and their Staffs: Jenn Doe, Paul Glover, Richard Silverstein, Jessica Smith, Ellen Sneider and that ever-reliable, ever-humble philanthropist, Anonymous.