But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
— Leviticus 19:34
PITTSBURGH — For two full minutes, he stood amid the flowers and the palms and a handful of American flags, absorbing the applause, exhilarating in it, and when finally the clapping subsided, when a silence fell in the room, Theodore Roosevelt spoke about the meaning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and about the wealth gap that yawned wide more than a century ago.
“You are celebrating the closing day of the Passover,” he said. “You are celebrating the great deliverance of the children of Israel from the house of bondage by Moses. The people of this country are in bondage now.”
This week, as the feast of the unleavened bread reaches its Thursday ending, the words of the former president of the United States 108 Passovers ago have peculiar and powerful resonance. They are even more potent because Roosevelt’s appearance in Pittsburgh -- forgotten now, living only in a much-ignored file in the Library of Congress -- came in a Jewish congregation that 11 decades later would be a symbol of the social maladies of our own time.
Because 11 decades ago — one decade for each of the 11 killed there in 2018 — Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue would be the forum for a remarkable speech by the 26th president, in uneasy retirement and resentful of how his progressive agenda had withered during the presidency of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft.
At Tree of Life, Roosevelt noted how the congregants sang “America” with unusual gusto, so much so that, as he put it, “it touched me to the quick,” because, he explained, “this is the great country where we should all stand in the fullest brotherhood.”
And then the former chief executive launched into a critique of the early 20th-century economy that is evocative of our 21st-century national life, and he did it in language that even the two great populists of our own time — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont of the Democratic socialist left, and President Donald J. Trump on the Republican right — would dare not employ:
“This great republic will fall if we permit great masses of our public citizens to be ground under the heel of oppressors. We are fighting today precisely as Lincoln did 52 years ago. We are fighting for a freedom of our oppressed working class.”
Today, when Tree of Life has a special symbolism in this community and around the globe, and when the wealth gap is a theme of our politics, Roosevelt’s speech has unusual authority, amplified by his identification with Passover, the Jews’ flight from oppression, their exile in the wilderness, and their final arrival in Canaan.
“We are reminded in the Torah 36 times to be mindful of the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who won international praise for his courage as bullets were sprayed across the sanctuary at Tree of Life and who emerged as a spokesman against anti-Semitism. “The prophets in the Bible took on that mantle and continually spoke of social justice, providing the connection between Passover and social justice.”
Roosevelt’s appearance at Tree of Life — not the structure now at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues but an earlier one, on Craft Avenue in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh — followed by only three years the visit of President Taft to a neighboring synagogue, Congregation Rodef Shalom. Taft was the first president to speak from the pulpit of an American Jewish congregation during regular Sabbath services.
“I esteem it a great privilege to appear before this intelligent and patriotic audience, at the insistence of your leader, your rabbi, who was a warm friend of my predecessor (Roosevelt), and whom, I am glad to think, has transferred his friendship for the time being to me.”
The “time being” turned out to be a very short time indeed. But in remarks in which he referred to the stately synagogue on Pittsburgh’s Fifth Avenue as “this beautiful church,” Taft struck notes that stir us today.
“The prayer (to) which we have just listened, full of liberality and kindness and humanity, makes one feel ashamed of all narrowness and bigotry in religion, and it makes me glad to say that never in the history of the country, never under any circumstances or in a crisis have the Jewish people failed to live up to the highest standard of citizenship and patriotism.”
These two presidential visits speak of Pittsburgh’s importance in the American Jewish passage, for in Pittsburgh some of the seeds of Reform Judaism were sown, much the way Orthodox Jewry flourishes today. Tree of Life, where Roosevelt spoke, long ago was a breakaway congregation from Rodef Shalom, where Taft spoke before attending a Pittsburgh Pirates game. In both, social justice was a strong theme.
It was left to Roosevelt to tie that to Passover. The reference to the liberation from bondage in Egypt makes this a distinctively Jewish expression of a universal value held by all groups: Not to hate or oppress the “other.”
“It is striking that Roosevelt, on Passover, invoked this value to declare that all Americans should stand in brotherhood with the working classes,” said Edmund Case, president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, adding that Roosevelt’s remarks are all the more poignant for being spoken at Tree of Life, “where hate for the ‘other’ had such tragic consequences over 100 years later.”
Roosevelt spoke in Pittsburgh at a time when it was a welcoming destination for immigrants, when plentiful work in the city’s glass factories and steel mills attracted thousands of people infused with grit and ambition -- but also at a time when labor tensions were high and both the Pittsburgh rail strike of 1877 and the Homestead steel strike of 1892 were still within living memory.
“Pittsburgh typifies much that is of the best in American life, but it also has its shortcomings,” Roosevelt concluded. “No man is a good citizen if he does not seek natural prosperity for himself and his family, and a just and higher life is the foundation of the government.” He was right then, and now.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.