A giant menorah stands in front of a Christmas tree at the Brandenburg gate to celebrate Hanukkah in Berlin December 16, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)
As our country prepares to say our final farewell to President George H.W. Bush, I gaze at the wall in my office where there hangs a framed signed photo of him along with students from Gesher Jewish Day School of Northern Virginia, the school I was privileged to serve as headmaster from 1988 to 1995.
It was December 12, 1990, when our students and faculty were invited to participate at the White House for a ceremony commemorating the holiday of Hanukkah, which coincidentally falls this week. When I received the invitation to go to the White House, I contacted Marc Glickman, a local Maryland artist who is known for his talent to create wooden dreidels. His hand-carved and inlaid wood dreidels have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution and at Jewish museums throughout the country. Each side of the dreidel in the Diaspora bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: nun, gimel, hei and shin, which together form the acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there.”
These letters were originally a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht (nothing), hei stands for halb (half), gimel for gants (all) and shin for shtel ayn (put in).
I asked Glickman if he could create two dreidels as gifts for the president, a regular one with the four Hebrew letters, and a special one with a gimel on each of the four sides. Ben Cooper, one of our students, explained the rules of the game to the president and vice president. When it came to the president’s turn to play the game, we gave him the one with all gimels, so that no matter which side the dreidel landed, the president would always win. I guess you could call it a loaded dreidel! During that ceremony, our students performed a number of Hanukkah songs after which the president came over to chat with the kids. He was gracious and down-to-earth; his humility was inspiring.
We were all touched greatly when during the President’s remarks he called up one of our students, Lydia Shestopalova, who had recently immigrated with her family to the United States from the Former Soviet Union. Lydia is just one example of how Bush was influential in assisting more than 150,000 Jews from the FSU to be able to emigrate and live and worship freely, a right that was denied to them for so many years.
Over these past days, tributes to “Bush 41” have been shared by people from all over the world who were impacted not just by his leadership, but by his gentle and dignified persona. I will never forget his kindness on that December morning in 1990. As Jews celebrate Hanukkah this week, also known as the Festival of Lights, I pray that all of our government leaders will remember Bush’s words, affirming that he would “keep America moving forward – for a better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.” May his memory endure as a blessing to his family and to a grateful nation.
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