“Tell the congresswomen not to come to Israel at this time,” the Foreign Ministry official announced to me in the spring of 1983. “The week of Passover is not convenient for us at the Ministry, and anyway, these are just habanot micongress [the girls from Congress]. “ Moreover, the official complained, the three, all Catholics, wanted to attend a seder. “Where will we find them a seder?”
His attitude went against my grain. I ignored his sexism, but I told him that if new members of Congress wanted to visit Israel, then they should be welcomed and assisted in every way possible. That reflected the spirit of my ten years in AIPAC’s Washington office and my opening of AIPAC’s Jerusalem office eight months earlier. “If the Ministry’s Guest Division won’t host them [as was the practice], then I’ll worry about their visit,” I assured him.
The three visitors were junior members of the House of Representatives: Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut who would go on to serve 17 years in the House, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland who served 10 years in the House and was elected to the Senate in 1988 (and still serves) , and Geraldine Ferraro of New York.
Yes, that Gerry Ferraro who a year later would run as candidate for vice president on Walter Mondale’s presidential ticket.
For native Israelis, the seder and the conversation around the table are in Hebrew. Three English speakers would be an imposition, so I had to find English-speaking seders. I turned to former Americans from New England and Baltimore to host Kennelly and Mikulski at their seders. But Ferraro presented me with a problem. She was in Israel with her husband, son and an aide, and who could I call just two days before seder to host four Americans?
I should have predicted my wife’s response. “Our first seder after making aliya, with four strangers?! With three kids under the age of nine and a six month old baby? With our plastic dishes?” But being the gracious host that she is, my wife’s answer was affirmative… eventually.
The Ferraros arrived bearing amazing gifts. A wine decanter with the House of Representatives seal engraved in it, a big box of Kosher for Passover Bartons chocolate from the old country, and congressional coloring books for the kids. But they also came with fascination, good humor, and patience for our children. It wasn’t long before our baby was on Gerry’s lap. The congresswoman and her husband, John Zaccaro, noted the seder components that were adopted by the Catholic mass, and Gerry shared her experience living in a mixed Catholic-Jewish neighborhood.
“One of her daughters had an allergy to milk,” she explained. Gerry learned that the word “parve” on a food product guaranteed that the product would contain no milk, and she would carefully inspect all the products at the grocery store. She chose not to respond when the Jewish store owner proudly declared, “It’s so wonderful to see a nice Jewish girl keeping kosher these days.”
When Gerry won the nomination, we were pounced upon by the Israeli press for details about her seder.
But that holiday wasn’t the end of her celebrating Jewish holidays with us in Israel. In September 1985 she wrote to congratulate us on a new baby (“kiss the baby for me and the other children as well!”) and that she was coming to Israel after visiting the Soviet Union. She would be in Israel for Simhat Torah. I tried to encourage her to stay in Moscow for the holiday, traditionally a highpoint for Soviet Jewish activists, but she couldn’t change her plans. We were thrilled to host her again, and this time I invited neighbors to hear her impressions from her meetings with Soviet Jews at the height of the Soviet Jewry campaign. [Natan Sharansky would be released in 1986.]
Later she sent a thank you note in which she shared her thoughts on the Soviet Jewry issue:
“I really am pleased by what we did in the Soviet Union. I’m not sure how to quantify it, but even if it is considered doing advance for George Schultz and Ronald Reagan for the Summit, it was worth it.”
In a prophetic close, she wrote, “Hopefully, the country you have chosen as your home will end up with Soviet Jews making aliya. Love to you all, Gerry.”
And our love and farewell to you, Gerry, a political leader, feminist pioneer, Zionist, and friend.
The writer served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is a consultant on public affairs and blogs at www.lennybendavid.com