US Jews, Asian Americans learn to make merry in May together

While some congressmen would like May to become synonymous with American Jewish history they face a major challenge.

US israel 88 (photo credit: )
US israel 88
(photo credit: )
As Senator Benjamin Cardin took the podium in a packed room of the Capitol last Wednesday to mark American Jewish Heritage Month, which concluded on Saturday, the Maryland Democrat noted that the month's celebration was about more than one achievement. "We're not only celebrating our heritage month, but also the birth of the State of Israel," he declared. But that, it turns out, is not all. Cardin neglected to mention it, but May was also Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, as it has been for the last 18 years. While some congressmen and Jewish activists would like to see May become synonymous with American Jewish history the way February is with Black History Month - when media, schools and cultural centers have special programming - they face a major challenge, since the month is already dedicated to another American minority group. "We wanted a month to raise understanding and awareness among non-Jews," said Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida), who pushed for the May designation. She also cited "an incredible rise in anti-Semitism, bigotry, intolerance, and... acts of violence perpetrated against Jews" as demonstrating the need for a month of education. "Too many Americans don't know about the contributions Americans have made. That [knowledge] I think will promote understanding." Wasserman-Schultz said she had urged that January become Jewish American Heritage Month, but that the Bush administration selected May, in part because Israel's Independence Day falls in May and the preference was for these events to be acknowledged in the same time period. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the subject. Wasserman-Schultz said, though, that the overlap with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month wasn't a problem. "We can celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and their history and contributions and also celebrate the contributions of Jewish Americans." But Richard Rosenzweig of Washington's Jewish Historical Society said that though there was room to accommodate both group, there was some issue of competition because the key to raising awareness was public service announcements. While May featured regular broadcasts about Asian heritage, there were few, if any, on Jewish themes. "You've heard about the Asians. You haven't heard about the Jews," he said, adding that this proved that "Jewish control of the media" was a myth. "If Jews controlled the media, don't you think we would have had first shot to get our views out to the media and have gotten attention?" But he said the bigger issue was that the Jewish community hadn't pushed strenuously enough for such recognition until now. "It's overdue, but that's primarily because of our situation, that we haven't made our voices heard and worked enough to get it out there," he explained, adding that, "most people have no idea of the contributions of the Jewish people to the United States of America." As an example, he pointed to the little-known but crucial role Haim Solomon played in saving the American forces in the Revolutionary War by financing a major leg of the battle headed by George Washington. Senior communications manager for the Organization of Chinese Americans Hope Chu, when informed that Asian Pacific American Heritage Month coincided with Jewish American Heritage Month, said that there was room to celebrate both. After all, she pointed out, May is also National Egg Month. And, according to Pam Pohly's Net Guide, it's also Correct Posture Month, Tuberous Sclerosis Awareness Month and Older Americans Month. And it could be worse. October is German American Heritage Month, Polish American Heritage Month and Italian American Heritage Month. "Our country and our calendar is big enough to celebrate more than one culture during the month," said William Daroff, head of the Washington office for the United Jewish Communities, which took the lead on getting the month recognized. "May has 31 days, far more than the 28 days of February, and as a consequence there's ample time for us to share the attention of the American people."