Jews on the Hill get their due in fascinating new book

In July 2009, following eight months of ballot recounts and court challenges, the celebrity comedian-turned-politician Al Franken took the oath of office as a United States senator from Minnesota.

In so doing, as Kurt F. Stone notes in his fascinating new book “The Jews of Capitol Hill,” Minnesota became the first state in U.S. history to have elected four Jewish senators: Rudy Boschwitz, Paul Wellstone, Norm Coleman and  Franken. Even more interesting, notes Stone, is the fact that it was not New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Pennsylvania “or some other state with a large Jewish population to elect four Jewish senators, but Minnesota, whose Jewish population amounted to less than 1 percent.”

This is only one of the many little-known and surprising facts contained in Stone’s meticulously researched, well-organized and highly readable compendium of historical facts and biographical information about the Jewish experience in Congress, past and present.

Since 1841, the year the first Jew was elected to Congress, until the congressional elections of November 2010, 198 Jewish men and women have served in the House or Senate. 

In “The Jews of Capitol Hill,” Stone has written detailed and illuminating biographical profiles of every Jewish member of the House and Senate, past and present, who collectively have carved a unique and historic niche in American political history.

Upon his election, Franken became the 13th Jew serving in the Senate during the 111th Congress. Of the 31 Jewish men and women serving in the House, 30 were Democrats, while Eric Cantor of Virginia — the sole Jewish Republican in Congress — was the House minority whip, the No. 2 leadership position on the Republican side of the aisle.

Among the long-forgotten Jews on Capitol Hill profiled in Stone’s book are Judah P. Benjamin, the first openly Jewish person to be elected to the Senate (from Louisiana in 1852), and later the secretary of state of the Confederacy; Lucius Littauer, Theodore Roosevelt’s classmate at Harvard, a Republican Congressman from 1897 to 1907, and one of Roosevelt’s close advisers throughout his presidency; and Isidore Straus, the New York merchant prince and philanthropist who was president of Macy’s department store and a Democratic congressman from Manhattan in the 1890s. On April 14, 1912, Isidore and his wife Ida died tragically as passengers on the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage.

Stone also provides illuminating biographical sketches of San Francisco’s Julius and Florence Prag Kahn, who represented San Francisco as Republican members of Congress from 1898 until 1936. During his long career in Congress, Julius, who thus far is the only American Jew ever seriously considered to become speaker of the House, was especially noted for his strong support of military preparedness. When the United States entered the World War I in 1917, Kahn advocated universal conscription and in May of that year pushed through Congress the Selective Service Act, which came to be called the “Kahn Amendment.”

Upon his death in 1924, Kahn’s widow, Florence Prag Kahn, was elected to his vacant House seat. Like her husband, a Republican and an ardent supporter of military preparedness, she would be reelected to five consecutive terms in the House, until her defeat in the Roosevelt landslide of 1936. Florence Kahn enjoys the historic (and often forgotten) distinction of having been the first Jewish woman elected to Congress.

Comprehensive in its research and scholarship, and rich in its historical anecdotes, insights and analysis, Stone’s “The Jews of Capitol Hill” should remain the definitive work on its subject for decades to come.

Rabbi David G. Dalin is a San Francisco–born historian and the co-author with John F. Rothmann of “Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam.”

“The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members” by Kurt F. Stone (662 pages, Scarecrow Press, $85)