Renowned hunter, cattle rancher, writer, military man, politician, reformer – and inspiration for the “Teddy Bear” – Teddy Roosevelt served in New York as an assemblyman, as New York City police commissioner, and as governor of the state before becoming the youngest president in 1901 after McKinley’s assassination.
Roosevelt greatly expanded the use of presidential power (many argued that he usurped that power), his domestic effort was marked by business regulation and trust-busting, and he stimulated the growth of both labor unions and the welfare state. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was the hallmark of his foreign policy, as he made the U.S. the virtual guardian of the Western Hemisphere and a major force in European and Far Eastern Affairs.
His accomplishments include laying the foundation for the American construction of the Panama Canal, making the U.S. a great naval power, enacting the Pure Food and Drug Act, and spearheading the American conservationist movement.
Shown here is a bright, colorful, and exceptionally artistic Jewish lithographic die cut portraying Roosevelt and his family. Such die cuts, also known as “prasim,” became very popular at the turn of the 20th century and were often used as prizes awarded to Jewish children.
Also shown below is a stamp issued by the Jewish National Fund celebrating Roosevelt as one of the first American honorees to be inscribed in its American Golden Book on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish National Fund (1926). The Golden Book, or “Sefer Hazahav,” was essentially a genealogical and historical record of the Jewish people over the past century, and each volume describes a different period in the life of the Jewish People and the contribution of Keren Kayemet for the preservation, care, and development of Eretz Yisrael.
An entry in the Golden Book was considered a mark of high esteem and gratitude, and has become a “medal of honor” awarded to all who have been recognized by the Jewish people for their contribution to Zionism.
The first Golden Book was created by Herzl to celebrate the delegates at the Fifth Zionist Congress who voted for and raised funds for the establishment of the JNF in 1901. Herzl also designed the cover, which beautifully depicts the sun with many rays rising over Jerusalem, representing a new era in the life of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
The obvious question, however, is why would the manufacturer of these prasim, which included subjects such as Jewish holidays, practices, traditions, and personalities, design one depicting Teddy Roosevelt? Why would the Jewish National Fund choose to bestow such a grand honor on him of all people?
The short answer, as we shall see in some detail below, is that the president was a profound supporter of Jews and their needs and interests, both at home and overseas, and he was much beloved by the Jewish people. Roosevelt had visited Eretz Yisrael, then under Ottoman rule, in 1873 as a teenager and written about the trip in his diary, including a description of Jews at prayer at the Kotel.
As regimental commander of the famed Rough Riders leading the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, he developed great admiration for the bravery of the 17 Jews under his command. Praising them, he said, “One of the best colonels among the regulars who fought beside me was a Jew. One of the commanders of the ship which blockaded the coast so well was a Jew. In my own regiment, I promoted five men from the ranks for valor… and these included one Jew.” The first of the Rough Riders to be killed in action was a Jew, 16-year-old Jacob Wilbusky of Texas (and the first to fall in the American attack on Manila was also a Jew, Sergeant Maurice Joost of California).
As police commissioner, Roosevelt developed a special relationship with Jews, praising them for their dedicated service to New York City. In one celebrated incident, the bravery of a Jewish policeman racing fearlessly into a burning house convinced Roosevelt that Jews could make outstanding contributions to America and that discrimination against them could not be tolerated.
In his autobiography, he tells the amusing tale of a Pastor Hermann Ahlwardt, a German preacher who had embarked on an anti-Semitic crusade against the Jews of New York; Roosevelt specifically assigned 40 Jewish police officers to protect him, writing that the “proper thing to do was to make [Ahlwardt] ridiculous.”
By 1899, Roosevelt’s popularity among the Jews of New York was such that they printed and distributed Yiddish flyers for his gubernatorial campaign and – with the slogan “Who takes revenge for us?” – suggested that his victory with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War was part of G-d’s revenge against Spain for its 1492 expulsion of the Jews.
When Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe began arriving in the United states in large numbers in the late 19th century, many Americans believed that these “greenhorns” would never acclimate themselves to American customs and traditions and that their loyalties were suspect. Characteristic of his upper class, Roosevelt initially showed contempt for these Jewish “huddled masses” arriving at Ellis Island, but his attitude changed dramatically when, as New York governor, he came to understand the difficulties inherent in ghetto life and to appreciate the character of its Jewish inhabitants.
By the time he became president in 1901, Roosevelt had had more personal contact with Jews than any previous president, and he became a great supporter of Jews, Jewish causes, and Zionism. William Loeb, Jr. served as his private secretary and principal presidential adviser, and he appointed Oscar Straus as the first Jew in the Cabinet. One of the reasons he offered for the appointment was: “I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country.”
In the aftermath of the infamous Kishinev Pogrom of April 1903, American Jewish leaders approached Roosevelt and urged him to sign a petition that had been signed by some 12,500 Americans, including senators and governors, and forward it to the czar. Knowing the futility of merely sending the petition, the president went further: He added his own personal letter condemning the slaughter:
I need not dwell upon a fact so patent as the widespread indignation with which the American people heard of the dreadful outrages upon the Jews in Kishineff (sic). I have never in my experience in this country known of a more immediate or a deeper expression of sympathy for the victims and of horror over the appalling calamity that had occurred. It is natural that while the whole civilized world should express such a feeling it should yet be most intense and most widespread in the United States; for of all the great powers I think I may say that the United States is that country in which from the beginning of its national career, most has been done in the way of acknowledging the debt due to the Jewish race and of endeavoring to do justice to those American citizens who are of Jewish ancestry and faith.
When the czar predictably refused to receive it, the letter was published worldwide, drawing great attention to the Jewish cause and, in his State of the Union address of 1904, Roosevelt pointedly denounced Russia for its treatment of Jews. He became the first president known to donate personal funds to a Jewish cause; after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to settle the Russo-Japanese War in 1906, he contributed a huge $4,000 block grant from his prize money to the National Jewish Welfare Board.
In a beautiful letter written as president, Roosevelt expressed his belief that to single Jews out as a group is immoral and that designating them for disparate treatment is intolerable:
In no case does a man’s religious belief in any way influence his discharge of his duties… To discriminate against a thoroughly upright citizen because he belongs to some particular Church, or because, like Abraham Lincoln, he has not avowed his allegiance to any Church, is an outrage against the liberty of conscience…in my Cabinet at the present moment there sit side by side Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew, each man chosen because in my belief he is peculiarly fit to exercise on behalf of all our people the duties of the office.
Even after his presidency (he served from 1901-09), Roosevelt continued his vociferous support for Jews, particularly with respect to his vigorous opposition to a proposal to include “religion” in American passports. In a beautiful June 30, 1911 correspondence to Israel Fisher marked “private,” which was also copied to future Jewish Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Roosevelt wrote:
This is strictly private and for your own consideration only, because I must not be quoted in any way that would seem to criticize anyone connected with the administration of my successor in office. Personally I would not put in the word Hebrew. I believe that from the standpoint of the Christian, just as much as from the standpoint of the Jew, it is ill-advised to treat what is really a religious matter as a race matter. I know plenty of men, some of them very prominent men, who are of mixed race; and personally I should no more have a man entered on a passport as a Hebrew, than as an Episcopalian, or a Baptist, or a Roman Catholic.
Israel Fischer, one of the most prominent Jewish-Americans at the time, was an attorney who served as a member of the executive committee of the New York Republican State Committee; as a U.S. congressman; as an appointee by President McKinley to the Board of General Appraisers (1899); as Roosevelt’s American representative to the International Customs Congress; and as associate justice of the United States Customs Court.
Frankfurter, of course, then counsel for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, went on to serve as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Thus, notwithstanding the privacy of this correspondence and his apparent concern about an ex-president weighing in on issues facing the current president (Taft), Roosevelt seems to have pointedly written this letter to the Jews most likely to publicize it to the Jewish community.
Roosevelt was the first president to advocate for a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. Even after his presidency, when the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, he declared that “it is entirely proper to start a Zionist state around Jerusalem, for peace would only happen if Jews were given Palestine” and, in a list of goals for the end of WWI, he included “Palestine made a Jewish State.”
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Finally, no discussion of Roosevelt and the Jews could fail to include the intriguing tales of Teddy’s menorahs and “Teddy’s bears.” Prominently displayed in the North Room of Roosevelt’s beloved estate at Sagamore Hill on Oyster Bay in Long Island are two menorahs, which may still be seen today. They were gifted to him by a dear friend, Sarah Bancroft Leavitt (1842-1929), who was close with Roosevelt’s parents and worked with them in pursuing various charitable causes.
The original “teddy bear” was designed in honor of Roosevelt by Rose and Morris Michom, Russian Jewish immigrants who later used a portion of their profits from the sale of their popular bears to support the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish National Fund, and other such organizations.
The idea occurred to Morris when, deeply moved by an article about Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a bear cub tied to a tree by his hunting partners, he came up with the idea for a doll, which was sewn by Rose. Wanting to make certain that the president would not think that he was being made an object of derision, they sent the original bear as a gift to Roosevelt’s children with a note asking for permission to call it “Teddy’s Bear,” which was readily granted.
The Jewish couple went on to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907, and sold millions of the bears, which remain popular even today. The original Teddy’s Bear may be seen on exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.