Rabbi Helps Armey Learn to Reconcile Hill Action, High Holidays
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 26, 1998; Page A14
Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) has been getting his own private lessons in Judaism lately. They started last February, when Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) sent Armey a letter complaining that the majority leader had scheduled votes during the Jewish High Holy Days.
Armey took the advice, and when the Jewish holidays came this fall, he saw to it that no votes and no hearings were held. But last week on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, something even more disruptive happened: The House Judiciary Committee released the video of the President Clinton's testimony about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Until the Starr report hit, the Republicans appeared to be making a good-faith effort. When House leaders were drawing up the schedule early this year, they suspended voting on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 21, but they resumed it again on the second day of the holiday. And votes were scheduled for the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, making it difficult for Jewish members to get home by sundown when the holiday starts.
"I had to explain that the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the same as the first," recalled Nadler, but the lesson was not sinking in. It was time to call a rabbi.
Jewish calendar in hand, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, trekked up to Armey's office. He sat down with a member of Armey's staff for a lesson on the meaning of "erev," or Hebrew for evening.
Giving an example from Genesis, Shemtov explained that Jews count days from evening to evening, so holidays always begin at sundown the previous day. If Jewish members could not get home in time the evening of Yom Kippur, they would miss the last meal before the one-day fast. He also explained that Rosh Hashanah lasts two full days.
"A lot of Republicans don't understand Judaism so well," said Shemtov. "But once we explained it to them, they were very receptive."
The lesson was passed on to Armey, and this time it stuck. "I think they figured I needed a rabbi to get it right," said Armey. "You can put me down as a slow learner."
Last year, as in many other years, the Jewish holidays became just another excuse for a partisan fight. Jewish members, who are mostly Democrats, accused Republicans of using the approach of sundown before Rosh Hashanah as a threat to get Democrats to cave in on a vote. And Republicans accused the Democrats of delaying so they could skip town before sundown without voting.
But this year the confrontation melted into a rare moment of spiritual harmony. Sixteen grateful Jewish members sent Armey a letter thanking him for changing the schedule and wishing him a "happy and healthy, sweet New Year." And Armey promised it would not happen again.
"I'll get it right next time," he said. "I'll have Jerry check my homework."
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