Sure, the 33 Jewish members of Congress are public figures. But they’re also individuals marking the 10-day period that began Wednesday night. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins Sept. 13, Jews commemorate the new year and are called to contemplate how to become their best selves in the coming months. Congressional Jews have their own rituals and topics on which to reflect.
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said he was marking on Wednesday the fifth anniversary of his wife’s death; they were married 50 years. Two decades ago, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who was raised in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, and his family created special holiday prayers and traditions. One prayer speaks of how close the family is and how members miss people who have passed away. People go around the table and share positive things that happened during the previous year. They use a stream behind his daughter’s home to carry out the Rosh Hashanah ritual called “tashlich,” which involves casting off your sins (usually embodied by a piece of bread) into water. Schumer’s family eats smoked herring on corn bread.
Sometimes the Jewish holidays fall when Congress is in summer recess, so there is no conflict. Otherwise, sessions pause for the holidays, a time when Jews are called to visualize their own death to force them to look squarely at themselves, their lives, and what they need to heal and improve to be nearer to God. They wear white and fast to bring intensity to the spiritual quest.
This year Rosh Hashanah, one of the most observed holidays of the year, falls as the question of military intervention in Syria is consuming the Capitol. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spent Wednesday in debate, crafting and passing a resolution that could head to the full Senate next week. Cardin, a member of the committee, said that even though he is relatively observant, he would have remained in Washington if need be, even as Rosh Hashanah began at sunset Wednesday.
“If it was a matter of national emergency, of course I’ll put my responsibility as senator first,” he said Tuesday night. He said he and Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who served four terms as a senator from Connecticut, discussed such conflicts. “We both agreed, if it’s an emergency, you do the business of the country and that comes first.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is known to be an observant Jew, skipped Wednesday’s hearing to fly home, but she voted by proxy in support of a resolution authorizing military force in Syria.