Behind the Headlines: the Big Capitol Hill Debate; Sour Cream or Applesauce?

The debate on Capitol Hill carried enormous consequences for the Washington Jewish community.

Sour cream or applesauce? On latkes, of course.

That’s what much of Jewish Washington has been reduced to in the doldrums of the holiday season.

With Congress halfway through a three-month recess and President Clinton splitting time between White House holiday parties and his new dog, Jewish Washington has also relaxed — a bit.

Then came the annual “Vodkas and Latkes” party at Rabinowitz Media Strategies on Capitol Hill last week.

With most guests in a dress-down mode and many of the men sporting a couple of days’ stubble, the immaculately groomed Stephen Silberfarb instigated the age- old latke debate.

For Silberfarb, the deputy director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and a Washington-area native, applesauce on latkes is like Republicans on Jews.

His preference for sour cream prompted strong objections from many in the crowd who were strategically placed at the kitchen door.

An informal survey showed applesauce an 8-1 favorite over sour cream in the largely Democratic, Northeast crowd.

When the gentleman from New York, Matthew Traub, rose to proclaim “Definitely applesauce,” he did so as if on the House floor, where from time to time he accompanies his boss, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

But the most stinging criticism came from Silberfarb’s own assistant, Adena Kanofsky, a Long Island, N.Y., native.

“It’s rather embarrassing,” she said of Silberfarb’s condiment choice.

Apparently other guests agreed; the bowl of sour cream grew warm as the party progressed.

Unfortunately the party’s host, Steve Rabinowitz, whose clients include the Reform movement and the New Israel Fund, never had the opportunity to share in the debate.

Rabinowitz was chained to the stove with the Chanukah curse — latke frying.

While not all is fun and games, even the work in Washington takes on a lighter edge during the slow, recess months.

Many Jewish officials use the time to plan for the return of Congress, scheduled to take place Jan. 28.

Stacy Burdett, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office, has her task down to a science.

Last December, Burdett ditched her high heels for rollerblades and fulfilled the dream of many Hill rats, as congressional staffers and lobbyists are affectionately known, as she sailed through the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building.

“It was the first time that the marble floors were used for something other than having your high-heeled shoes make a lot of noise,” Burdett said.

This year, Burdett has stayed off the Hill and concentrated on some work that she wouldn’t otherwise have time for. For instance, she was in the final stages of drafting a letter to the German minister of defense to congratulate him on a recent reprimand of officers who invited a neo-Nazi to speak to his troops.

With Chanukah just around the corner, most Jewish groups are planning their own festivities.

The American Friends of Lubavitch planned to mix business and pleasure at its annual Capitol Hill Chanukah party this week.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Lubavitch Washington office, planned to inaugurate the Capitol Jewish Forum, an informal group of Jewish hill staffers that now boasts more than 100 members.

Others use the time to escape the Washington Beltway.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, took a couple of days to head West to plan the Republican group’s annual winter leadership trip to Aspen, Colo.

While Brooks was busy deciding against snapping a tabloid photo for a tabloid of supermodel Cindy Crawford dining with an unidentified man, his staff was working on a statement urging Clinton to avoid pressuring Israel.

Back in the nation’s capital, the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations was concentrating its efforts on one of the only substantive policy debates that engages Washington in December — the writing of the federal budget.

CJF is working to convince the Clinton administration to restore food stamps for legal immigrants and refugees, a benefit that was cut under last year’s balanced-budget agreement.

With the federal budget scheduled to go to the printer the first week of January, CJF’s lobbyists have had little down time this season.

With hunger on the rise among Jewish elderly immigrants who lost federal benefits, for them the debate is not over applesauce or sour cream.

“We have a crisis on our hands,” said Diana Aviv, director of the CJF Washington office. “In our community, we’re going to have death or starvation or serious crises in our emergency rooms.”

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