Our first president was Dad’s hero. The reasons were personal.
I grew up surrounded by George Washington. Literally.
He was pretty much the only art in our house — dozens of big, framed Washington prints. In almost every room.
They were there because he was my dad’s hero.
A few of the prints, I thought, were a bit much. Like, Dad, do we really need George on his deathbed?
But most were valiant — Washington on horseback, crossing the Delaware, and as a statesman.
The outward reason: My father was a Colonial history guy.
But inwardly, it was more personal. At least that’s how it started — on a visit to Newport when he was a young adult.
He stopped at Touro Synagogue, the country’s oldest, and saw a famous letter written in 1790 by then-President Washington to its congregation.
The letter guaranteed two things to this small community of Jews: freedom of religion, and tolerance of all.
Those words are still famous and this Sunday, Touro will re-read them in a ceremony marking the letter’s 227th anniversary.
The letter’s most powerful phrases — to both history and my dad — are these:
“The Government of the United States,” wrote Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
He added: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to … enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.”
Why would those sentences have turned my dad into a lifelong Washington devotee?
Because of a secret fear many minorities have — the fear you’re not fully accepted in America.
My dad grew up with that fear as the son of a Jewish immigrant who fled here as a teen in 1908 to escape religious persecution in Russia.
My grandfather loved this country so much, he flew a U.S. flag every day from his home. He just wanted to be American. As did most immigrants.
But growing up in the 1930s, my dad heard his share of religious slurs. He heard them in the schoolyard and on the streets. Even though the airwaves were relatively new, he heard slurs there too, on early hate radio. And of course, from hate groups.
He didn’t hear the opposite enough, not from on high. Too few political leaders roundly decried the discrimination.
And then it happened.
My dad came to Newport and saw that letter from our most iconic leader, denouncing bigotry.
And he really did feel more accepted.
That’s the power of the right words from those in high office.
My father cared about his faith, and his heritage. He was proud when Jewish names made good, like Hank Greenberg hitting 58 home runs in 1938 and Kirk Douglas getting three Oscar nominations.
But he didn’t have pictures of Moses on the wall, or figures from Jewish history.
He had George Washington.
Whose letter helped make him feel fully American.
In this time of hate marches, may Washington’s famous words make all feel the same.
George Washington’s letter, “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” will be commemorated at 1 p.m. Sunday at Touro Synagogue, 85 Touro St., Newport. Reservations are required and seating is limited. Call (401) 847-4794, ext. 207, or email [email protected]
On Twitter: @MarkPatinkin
Follow on Facebook: Mark Patinkin