Theodore Roosevelt: friend of the Jews

With President’s Day around the corner, it is an appropriate time to think about our nation’s chief executives.
We have had 45 Presidents of the United States, so there is enough material for a complete encyclopedia. However, I hope that you’ll be satisfied with a few scatterings of interesting factoids.
In 1945, I was looking for a seat on the uptown subway after seeing a Broadway movie, I noticed that everything was much more quiet than usual, except for some sobbing. It was eerie. No one was talking, newspapers were wide open, and I could see the front-page headlines: “Extra: FDR Dies.” This is a childhood memory I will never forget.
My interest has also been focused on FDR’s presidential relative, Theodore Roosevelt. What first endeared me to that Roosevelt were descriptions of how he struggled to overcome childhood asthma.
I, too, had asthma as a child and was overweight, to boot. Roosevelt’s struggle to develop physically, to overcome his handicaps, was also my struggle.
His love for the outdoors was one I shared later in life. One of the “must visit” places in the New York City area is Sagamore Hill, a national historic site on Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Sagamore Hill was TR’s home for the last 33 years of his life. From 1901 to 1909 it was the Summer White House.
What struck me on my visit to this National Historic Site were the great number and variety of wild animal heads, horns, skins, and bodies on display, on walls, floors, and ceilings.
Specimens from the many hunts he participated in before, during, and after his presidency “follow you around” as you try to concentrate on other aspects of his life and home.
It is strange to think how, on one hand, this man could gain a reputation as a great hunter. Yet, on the other hand, he is highly regarded as a great conservationist. The greatness of the man was his ability to be hunter, protector of wildlife and caretaker of the wilderness.
And, as Jews, we should consider Theodore Roosevelt a friend, as evidenced by many examples. While serving as New York City Police Commissioner, he was under pressure by New York’s Jews to ban the speaking engagement of an anti-Semitic German preacher.
Roosevelt instead ordered that the police bodyguard unit consist only of Jews. The result was that the anti-Semitic preacher was duly embarrassed by the newspaper coverage, especially the editorial cartoons that poked fun at the speaker’s predicament in the next day’s newspapers.
President Roosevelt publicly denounced the Russian pogroms of Kishinev. He supported the idea of an independent Jewish state of Palestine. Additionally, he favored independence for the Arabs and the Armenians.
And finally, Roosevelt was the first president to appoint a Jew to a cabinet level position; Oscar Straus had the position of U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor from 1906 to 1909.
Perhaps the one the one thing that endeared Theodore Roosevelt to most Americans, including its Jews, was the Teddy Bear. Roosevelt, who had been invited to hunt bears by the Mississippi governor, hadn’t had any sightings, and was the only hunter without a bear. An aide felt sorry for the president, and captured an old, injured, emaciated bear and tied him to a tree for the president to shoot. President Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. Rather, he ordered it put down, to spare it any more pain and suffering.
A few days later, a Jewish candy store owner, Morris Michtom in Brooklyn, New York, saw a cartoon poking fun at Roosevelt, the hunt, and the president’s refusal to shoot the bear. Michtom, and his wife Rose, created stuffed animals, which they sold out of their store. One of those animals was a stuffed bear, which Michtom sent to President Roosevelt with a request that the product be named Teddy’s Bears.
President Roosevelt gave his permission, and worldwide demand for the Teddy Bear eventually led to creation of the Ideal Toy Company.
Most of my family and friends had a Teddy Bear in their home at one time or another. I still have a Teddy Bear, for the grandkids.
To conclude, Theodore Roosevelt was larger than life, with a focus on conservation and justice. He was also supportive of the Jewish community in a time during which such support was needed.

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