May 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An Encounter With the General

In the 1990s when I lived in Los Angeles, I published the largest Jewish newspaper in the West, which was two years shy of 100 years old when I sold it. I also served on the board of the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy of Beverly Hills that my children attended. That year, our school won the National Blue Ribbon Award designation of the United States Department of Education. The award and a flag are presented each year to the top private and public schools in the U.S. The National Blue Ribbon School flag is a widely recognized symbol of exemplary teaching and learning.

We were invited by the White House to the ceremony at which the award would be presented. There were four of us, the dean and education director Rabbi Menachem Gottesman, the president of the school, the English principal and myself.

As it turned out, the hotel where we stayed was to host a VIP dinner for Nelson Mandela who was visiting the United States after his investiture as president of South Africa. We returned from the White House ceremony to our hotel at the same time that the dinner for Mandela was ending. The hotel had a large circular drive, and one line of cars was waiting to turn onto the street to leave the hotel and the other line was waiting to get into the parking garage. The lines ran parallel to each other. The cars seemed to just sit there, moving a few inches every few minutes.

Suddenly a space opened up next to our car in the line leaving the hotel and the front of a limousine appeared. As the limousine moved up parallel to our car, the back door opened and a very tall gentleman, dressed in a tuxedo, opened the limo’s rear door and stood on the floor of the limo with one hand on the roof and one hand on the open door to support himself. He was obviously looking to see what the bottleneck was. I did a double take, realizing that there stood General Colin Powell.

I turned to Rabbi Gottesman, who was driving, and exclaimed: “That’s General Colin Powell!”

“NO!” replied Rabbi Gottesman.

“THAT’S HIM!” I said.

“You’re joking!” he replied.

“That’s REALLY him!” I insisted. “Do you know that he speaks Yiddish?”

“No, you’re kidding.”

I leaned out of the window and said:

“Shalom Aleichem, General Powell!”

To which he responded, “Aleichem Shalom.”

Then I said, “Ich hob gehert as ihr redt Yiddish” (I heard that you speak Yiddish).

He responded, “Avadeh” (of course!), and with a smile added, “Farvos nit?” (Why not?)

The cars started to move again. General Powell got back into his limousine and waved goodbye as my dumbfounded colleagues marveled at what they had just witnessed.

By Rabbi Yale Butler

 

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