One speaker referred to "all of you in this room," to the amusement of several in the audience on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial last night. Some of the evening's speakers, clearly less than comfortable in the unusual convention setting, paused uneasily each time a plane roared overhead.
But at the end of the ceremonies, when the delegates of the 69th annual convention of Hadassah lit small candles in tribute to Soviet Jews and held them above their heads as a cantor sang a mournful song in Hebrew, all awkwardness disappeared.
The floodlights were extinguished. Thin tendrils of smoke crawled into the sky, the air smelled of burning wax, and for a moment the crowd seemed on the same scale as the surroundings.
Whoever decided to hold the first session of the Women's Zionist Organization of America convention at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial had a flair for the symbolic. With the U.S. representative to the United Nations as guest speaker, the statue of the 16th president looking down solemnly on the nearly 2,500 delegates, and the Washington Monument glistening in the reflecting pool visible just above the rostrum, no convention organizer could ask for more.
When U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick took the podium, her strong words and eloquently phrased promises seemed to fit the setting perfectly. What Kirkpatrick said was not new or surprising, but it was what the audience wanted to hear, and it was why Hadassah had chosen her to receive the Henrietta Szold Award, the organization's highest honor.
"The rejectionist Arab-Soviet bloc in the United Nations seeks to portray Israel as the obstacle to peace," she said, "when, in fact, the real obstacles are the PLO, Syria and the Soviets, who work to undermine all constructive efforts to find a solution."
Kirkpatrick condemned the mistreatment "of some nations, especially of democratic nations, especially of one democratic nation," by what she called the "pernicious" elements in the United Nations.
"The sad fact is that hate-filled rhetoric is correctly perceived in rendering that organization ineffective in its most basic task of the keeping of the peace," she said.
She insisted that there is a "good United Nations" consisting of the specialized agencies and commissions, but added, "the good works of the United Nations are often overshadowed by the political histrionics."
Kirkpatrick's style, defiant and patriotic, complemented the mood of the evening. When Kirkpatrick was introduced, one onlooker, standing with a young girl at the top of the steps, leaned down and whispered to the child, "She's the guest of honor. She's a lady and she's a real gutsy lady."
Most of the visitors to the monument seemed a little more bewildered by the gathering. They watched from the steps in uncertain silence while several thousand voices joined in singing the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah," but joined in enthusiastically when the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner."
After Kirkpatrick had spoken and the candles had been held high, the convention chairwoman reminded the participants to dispose of their candles in "the nearest receptacle." The departing figures wandering across the dark lawns around the Memorial returned to human dimensions.