Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Massive and Invisible | The Oscar Straus Memorial

Outside the Reagan Building, on the DC Mall, is a large fountain flanked by imposing statues.

You could be forgiven for (a) assuming they have something to do with Ronald Reagan, or (b) neglecting to notice them at all.

In fact, this a monument to Oscar Straus, the first Jew to be appointed as a cabinet secretary. He served under Theodore Roosevelt as Secretary of Commerce and Labor. He also served under Taft, McKinley, and Cleveland. His autobiography describes Roosevelt's offer to join his cabinet:

After luncheon, the President asked me to wait for him in the Red Room, as he wanted to have a talk with me. When the other guests had departed, he came back to me and with his face beaming with geniality he said: "I don't whether you know it or not, but I want you to become a member of my Cabinet. I have a very high estimate of your character, your judgement, and your ability, so I want you for personal reasons. There is still a further reason: I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country."

How wholesome is that scene? It's like out of an episode of West Wing.

As for the monument itself, the statues on the left are titled Justice, while those on the right are titled Reason. Justice is a nod to the Religious Freedom that allowed a Jew to have such a prominent government position:

Just two blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C., in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, is a memorial to Oscar Straus, one of the premier U.S. statesmen of the early twentieth century. Two statues represent what Straus cherished most about this country—our high esteem for enterprise, on the one hand, and our commitment to freedom of religion on the other. At the base of the monument to religious freedom—a woman, representing "Justice," with her arm resting on the Ten Commandments—the inscription reads: "Our Liberty of Worship is not a Concession nor a Privilege but an Inherent Right."

Reason honors Straus' Commerce and Labor efforts:

To the right of the fountain, Reason is represented by a partially draped male figure and a child holding a purse, key, and hammer, symbolizing capital and labor. The figures represent the opportunity and religious freedom Oscar Straus found in the United States and commemorate what he gave back in service to his adopted country.

At the time, immigration fell under Commerce and Labor and Straus didn't forget his immigrant roots:

Straus, an immigrant and the first Jewish person to serve in a presidential cabinet, believed in an open-door policy for immigration. Whereas previous Secretaries of Commerce and Labor had viewed Ellis Island as an administrative headache, Straus took greater interest in immigration than his predecessors and gave full support to the views of the new commissioner.

Everything I read about Straus gives off an aura of goodwill and striving to make the world a better place. Still, I can imagine his Mom having this back and forth: You must be so proud! Feh. What kind of boy gives up a law practice to be a secretary?

The Straus monument, while hidden in plain sight, is a treasured part of Jewish DC. If you have the opportunity, swing by and take a fresh look at this work of art that honors a remarkable Member of the Tribe.

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