With emotion and humor, Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, reflected Tuesday on his heritage and “what it means to be Jewish.”
“To be a Jew is to be a member of a community – and that’s not just our community, but the community at large. … We have an obligation beyond our community to serve,” Emanuel said in a keynote address at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s annual meeting.
Emanuel has talked before about the personal pride he feels about being elected mayor of the city where his immigrant father and grandfather chose to settle.
On Tuesday, he choked back tears as he shared a moment of pride with Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, the longtime Jewish Federation president who received his organization’s highest honor at Tuesday’s luncheon.
“When my grandfather and Steve’s grandfather came to this city, they never dreamt that these two people or anybody [Jewish] would be on this podium. Never have dreamt it,” the mayor said.
His voice cracking, the mayor said, “I know my grandfather, Herman, is kvelling,” the Yiddish word for bursting with pride.
With his parents in the audience, Emanuel recalled his family’s trip to Israel last year for the Bar Mitzvah of his son, Zach, and nephew, Noah.
“The night before their Bar Mitzvahs, my brother, Ari, and I took our two sons to the [Wailing] Wall to recite the prayer, ‘Who are you, if you are not for yourself? What are you if you are only for yourself? And if not now, when?’ The same prayer my father said to me on my Bar Mitzvah,” Emanuel said.
“And that really is the spirit, the culture, the philosophical outlook of the [Jewish Federation]. Yes, you have to make sure that no Jew suffers either hunger, homelessness or any of the economic hardships of life. But, our work does not stop at the borders of our own community.”
The mayor’s daughter, Ilana, got a chance to walk that walk after celebrating her Bat Mitzvah recently.
Emanuel said he and his wife, Amy, “don’t allow parties for Bat Mitzvah.” Instead, Ilana Emanuel worked with KaBoom – a national non-profit – to plan and build a playground for homeless children at A Safe Haven’s transitional living facility at 2750 W. Roosevelt.
“We’ve taught our kids that the most important thing they can do for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah is to give something back. And in an afternoon, an entire playground went up … 250 people. She organized 130 of ’em. That was her Bat Mitzvah party,” the mayor said.
“It’s a time for celebration. But [also] a time to learn that first lesson in life: You have something special. Do something for those who are in a time of need. That is what it means to be Jewish.”
For all of the emotion of Tuesday’s speech, there was also a heavy dose of Jewish humor. In fact, Emanuel sounded, at times, like a Borscht Belt comedian.
In referring to Nasatir’s title as a doctor, the mayor made a joke about the aspiration that his own mother – and virtually every Jewish mother – has for her son.
“My parents are over there. I’ll call my parents later and my mother will go, ‘Dr. Nasatir. What about you?’ And I will have merely to say, ‘I’m a spin doctor. You’ve just got to live with it, Mom,’ ” Emanuel said.
With the High Holidays fast approaching, the mayor could not resist a playful jab at the Chicago aldermen in the audience.
“They’re all excited because, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming up, they get extra holidays. The lessons are actually from 3-4 [p.m.] on Hebrew now at City Council meetings,” the mayor said as his audience laughed out loud.
“And to all the kids who are here from all the schools, this was not my idea of a longer school day.”