John Kerry found out during his 2004 presidential run that his paternal grandparents were born Jewish. The discovery was especially meaningful for Kerry’s brother, Cameron, who had converted to Judaism before marrying into a Jewish family.
It also meant that when the Kerry addressed the American Jewish Committee yesterday — his first speech to the U.S. Jewish community as secretary of state — he was ready with a Hebrew psalm to describe an American first: Two brothers serving in an American Cabinet at the same time. (Cameron Kerry, the Commerce Department’s general counsel, is acting secretary until a new secretary is approved by the Senate. Obama’s candidate is hotel heiress Penny Pritzker.).
When the Psalmist wrote the hymn, Hineh Ma Tov uMah Nayim (laughter) — “How good and pleasing it is for brothers to sit together in unity” — (laughter) I’m pretty sure he wasn’t picturing us sitting together in the Cabinet Room of the White House (laughter) though our mother may well have.
Kerry winged the Hebrew pretty successfully — although, notably, he dropped out before getting to the tough part, shevet ahim gam yahad.
There were another couple of Hebrew nods in the speech — his well worn remembrance of shouting “Am Yisrael Chai!” from atop Masada in 1986, and a “Mah Nishtanah” to launch his explanation of why reviving the peace process is critical, now.
His accent wasn’t too bad, especially when imitating an Israeli colonel who insisted on taking him flying during the 1986 trip: “Senator, I hope you haven’t eat too much. We go flying.”
The accent could be a result of his frequent visits. “I had the great honor of becoming Secretary of State in February,” he noted during his speech. “I visited Israel in March, April, and May, and I will be back soon.”