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Tribal Chiefs

Jack Lew, Obama’s new chief of staff, is the third Jewish official in the last 10 years to run the White House, after Rahm Emanuel and Josh Bolten

Yair Rosenberg
January 11, 2012
Jacob Lew.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Jacob Lew.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On Monday, President Barack Obama named Jacob “Jack” Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, as his new chief of staff. While Lew is recognized on Capitol Hill for his technocratic know-how and reputation as an honest broker, he was known in Jewish circles—incorrectly, until yesterday—as the man who refused to pick up an urgent phone call from President Bill Clinton on Shabbat. But Lew is only the latest in an illustrious line of Jewish presidential chiefs of staff. In fact, two of his three direct predecessors—Rahm Emanuel and Joshua Bolten—have also shared this distinction. (Ken Duberstein, a Reagan appointee in 1988, was the first Jew to hold the post.) In honor of Lew’s appointment, we’ve compiled an assortment of their greatest Jewish hits.

Rahm Emanuel: On Nov. 4, 2008, a mainstream Greek paper infamously heralded the election of Barack Obama as “the end of Jewish domination.” The elation, however, was short-lived: A few months later, President-Elect Obama would tap Rahm Emanuel, congressman from Illinois, as his first chief of staff. Few choices could have been better designed to incense global anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. After all, unlike even the staunchest of Jewish or pro-Israel politicians, Emanuel is the only one who can credibly say that “Israel” is his middle name.

Emanuel’s pride in his religion and national identity is well-documented. His parents used to take the entire clan to Israel for the summers, and Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer at an Israeli military base during the 1991 Gulf War. In 2005, as part of a political fundraiser poking fun at his future chief of staff, Obama noted that “Rahm is very serious about [his faith]. He keeps the Sabbath. He goes to synagogue. He doesn’t just talk about the Ten Commandments, he lives them. With some modifications. The one ‘thou shalt not kill’—unless he’s a target. ‘Thou shalt not covet’—unless absolutely necessary.” (Obama then added that “every year, Jews celebrate Passover recalling the day that the angel of death passed over their homes in ancient Egypt; today, Republicans celebrate when Rahm passes over their district.”)

But perhaps the most quintessential Emanuel story is told by Asher Lopatin, the modern Orthodox rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom B’nei Israel—where Emanuel and his wife are members—who recently delivered the first invocation at the Chicago City Council after Emanuel was elected mayor there. Lopatin recounts how one Yom Kippur, Emanuel, in attendance for the entire day of services, was accosted by an acquaintance during davening. His reaction? “Rahm in his inimitable fashion said, ‘shut [the] *something* up, I have a lot of repenting to do.’”

Joshua Bolten: Less popularly known for his Jewishness is Joshua Bolten, President George W. Bush’s second chief of staff and Emanuel’s immediate predecessor. And with a middle name like “Brewster,” this isn’t exactly surprising. But Bolten’s Jewish commitments are no less substantial and have been evidenced throughout his long political and post-political career.

As recounted in Laura Bush’s authorized biography, when Bolten first began serving as Bush’s policy director in 1999 in Texas, the future first lady noticed that he would consistently pass on certain dishes during meals at the Bush family ranch or governor’s mansion. As it turned out, Bolten would not eat shellfish or consume meat outside kosher homes or restaurants. From that point forward, Laura made sure to have a vegetarian alternative on hand; at campaign barbecues, there would be pork on the grill for staffers and vegetables for Bolten.

Bolten became one of the Bushes’ sources on Judaism. The subject particularly interested the first lady, who would quiz him about aspects of the Jewish holidays or the meanings of rituals. In her biography, Bolten recalls how “whenever I was over for a meal, they would say grace. They would ask me to say grace in Hebrew and ask for the translation.” Once, during a stay at Camp David, Laura asked Bolten to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing to mark the occasion.

At the White House, where Bolten, like Lew, first served as OMB director before becoming chief of staff, he placed a mezuzah on his office door, brought dreidels and gelt to staff meetings during Hanukkah, and, in 2006, participated in a White House Megillah reading for Purim.

Since the close of the Bush presidency, Bolten has served as the vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. In this capacity, he spoke this past May at the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony at the United States Holocaust Museum, where he presided over the joint lighting of six symbolic candles by congressmen and Holocaust survivors. All in all, not bad for a guy who started off funding the production of his teenage band’s LPs by playing covers at bar mitzvahs.


It’s hard not to wonder what the funniest Jewish anecdote from Lew’s tenure in the White House will be. If you’ve got a prediction, leave it in the comments. Winner gets a free copy of … you guessed it: Jews and Power.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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