I was honored to know and interact with Barbara Bush over the course of three decades. When I learned of her passing last week, my mind turned to the hymn of “Eishet Chayil – Woman of Valor” recited every Friday night at the Sabbath dinner table.
This ode, found in Mishlei (31:10-31) and written by King Solomon, reminds me of the Barbara Bush I knew: a woman of towering strength and character, possessing a sense of purpose, wisdom, compassion, and dignity. How fitting, then, that Eishet Chayil was read by Barbara Bush’s granddaughters at her funeral service in Houston, Texas.
Barbara Bush participated in historic events relating to the Jewish people; over the past few days I viewed photos of some of them: In the summer of 1986, my husband – former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Joseph Gildenhorn – accompanied then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, along with other American Jewish leaders, on a historic trip to Israel. During that visit, the vice president became the highest-ranking American official ever to visit the Kotel in Jerusalem. Notwithstanding many diplomatic protests, both Barbara and George HW. Bush took that important step – one that recognized the 3,000-year connection to Jerusalem that so many in the world chose to deny.
Two photographs from that day captured the important visit. The first is a photograph of Vice President Bush praying at the Kotel. The second features Vice President and Mrs. Bush – along with Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and his wife – in the Old City overlooking the Temple Mount and Kotel Plaza.
Another wonderful photo from that same trip shows Vice President and Mrs. Bush at a resettlement center for Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Mrs. Bush’s beautiful smile in the photo reflects the deeply moving experience she enjoyed at the center. Some of the children she met were actually rescued because of the direct involvement of her husband in 1985. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, the late Meir Rosenne, recounted the pivotal role George H. W. Bush played:
“Eight hundred Jews were stranded in Sudan before the revolution. I went to see Vice President Bush at his home on a Saturday morning. He was planning to visit the area, and I mentioned the plight of the Jews, telling of our deep belief that he who saves one life is as if he saved the entire world. As a result of his action, 800 Jews were brought in one night by the U.S. directly to Israel. Those were not Americans; the risks were enormous. But this was done by the United States. We will never forget it.”
A year later, Mrs. Bush and her husband visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, becoming the highest ranking U.S. officials to visit the site where nearly one million Jews perished. A few weeks later, Mrs. Bush appeared with her husband on a cold November day before 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry – held on the eve of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Washington summit with President Reagan. The vice president said something then that stunned the audience:
“Let’s not see five or six or 10 or 20 refuseniks released at a time, but thousands, all those who want to go. Mr. Gorbachev: Let those people go.”
Gorbachev heard the message loud and clear. When George H.W. Bush became president two years later, nearly half a million Jews would be allowed to leave for Israel and the United States during his presidency. If you had asked Jewish leaders at the time how many Soviet Jewish emigres would one day be able to leave the USSR, none of them would have suggested such a large number.
President H.W. Bush made history for the Jewish people, and at each seminal moment, Barbara Bush was there – not just as a witness to history unfolding, but very much as a participant and contributor.
Whenever I was in the presence of Barbara Bush, I always knew I would come away with an experience characterized by warmth, straight talk, and good humor – some called it formidable informality. She valued family above all. When you were with Barbara Bush, you felt you were in the presence of a formidable matriarch. She had a very strong sense of self – she knew what wanted to do and how it should be done. Yes, she was the “enforcer” – of high standards, compassion, and dedication to family and community. To know Barbara Bush was to appreciate her strength, talents, and, especially, values.
Barbara Pierce Bush lived a full, rich, and beautiful life of meaning. I greatly admire the example she set for all Americans on dedication to causes greater than oneself, as well as civility, humility and faith. That will always be her legacy. She left her mark not just on her own family, but on the larger American family as well.
As I read “Eishet Chayil” this past Friday, I was struck by how beautifully it describes the former First Lady – almost as if it were written about her. “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and instruction of kindness is on her tongue. She supervises the ways of her household and does not eat bread of idleness. Her children rise and call her fortunate; also her husband, and praises her.”
Rest in peace, Barbara Bush. May your memory forever be a blessing – and an inspiration.