By GAIL FINEBERG
Two little girls in swirling party dresses of velvet and red plaid taffeta and a jittery young man in a gray suit settled into solemn stillness beside their mom, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., just long enough for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to swear her in ceremoniously as South Florida’s 20th-District representative to the 111th Congress.
A formal swearing-in of all the representatives had occurred earlier the same day, Tuesday, Jan. 6, on the House floor.
As Wasserman Schultz’s family stepped before a battery of photographers in the ceremonial Rayburn Room in the U.S. Capitol at about 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday to have their picture taken with Pelosi, they gathered around the first Bible printed in Hebrew in America, in Philadelphia in 1814. Wasserman Schultz placed her left hand on the Bible and raised her right, in concert with Pelosi.
Based on the second edition of the Joseph Athias Bible, this Bible (“Biblia Hebraica”) was published in two volumes by Jonathan Horwitz, who had recently arrived from Amsterdam with a font of Hebrew type. He sold subscriptions to pay for the printing of two volumes without vowel marks over the Hebrew letters to help with vocalization, but with marginal notations in Latin.
An offer to use the Hebrew Bible for the oath-taking was made to Wasserman Schultz, who was first sworn into the 109th Congress on Jan. 4, 2005. Since her appointment as chairman of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee in January 2007, she has worked closely with Library staff on the Library’s annual budget requests and often has expressed support of the Library and Librarian James H. Billington. Her other Library connection is her membership on the Joint Committee on the Library.
A rising star in the Democratic Party, Wasserman Schultz gave the speech to second the nomination of Barack Obama for president at the Democratic National Convention in June. She also serves on the House Committee on the Judiciary.
The Library’s Stephen Kelley, a congressional relations specialist, tucked the Bible back into a CNN book bag and prepared for the next hand-off at 5 p.m., of the same Bible to Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who represents California’s 27th district (the San Fernando Valley) in the 111th Congress.
Sherman had used the Hebrew Bible two years ago, and he called the Library’s Congressional Relations Office on Monday, Jan. 5, and asked to use the old Hebrew Bible again. The request was relayed to Peggy Pearlstein, head of the Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, which holds the Bible.
The Congressional Relations Office supplied Bibles from the Library’s collections to two other members of Congress, whose requests came into the office on the day before their swearings-in.
Sen. Jeff Merkely, D-Ore., the former speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives who was elected to his first term in the U.S. Senate, requested “a historically significant Bible” for his ceremonial oath with Pelosi.
Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, pulled several Bibles from the Thomas Jefferson Collection, including two in Greek, one in Latin, and an English imprint published in London in 1796. Containing Jefferson’s signature initials, T and J, the English-language Bible, a King James version, was selected for Merkely’s use. Two years ago, Dimunation selected another historic book from Jefferson’s collection, a Quran, for use by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., during his ceremonial oath-taking on Jan. 4, 2007. (See Information Bulletin, January/February 2007.)
Pam Russell, a congressional relations specialist, was on her way with the Bible to the Senate side of the Capitol for the 11:50 a.m. ceremonial swearing-in of the newly elected senators in the Old Senate Chambers. Russell’s Blackberry buzzed with an urgent message: “Where’s the Bible? Vice President Richard Cheney is 20 minutes ahead of schedule.”
Russell sprinted through tunnels and delivered the Bible just in time for pictures.
The fourth request for a Bible came to the Congressional Relations Office at 4:30 p.m. on Monday from the first Vietnamese member of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, who unseated his Democratic opponent in New Orleans.
Cao, who had studied for six years to become a Jesuit priest before choosing law and politics, wanted a Catholic Bible in Vietnamese. Allen Thrasher, a senior reference librarian in the Asian Division, selected two, one published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in Hong Kong in 1956 and the other published in San Jose in 1993. Congressional relations specialist Susan Shaw delivered them to Cao’s office for a private swearing-in ceremony—private except for the throngs of Vietnamese well-wishers who came to cheer his accomplishment.
Children were much a part of the Cao ceremonies, too, with the congressman holding his 4-year-old daughter and keeping another close to him while Pelosi conducted the mass swearing-in on the House floor. The girls wore traditional Vietnamese dresses (ao dai), one in yellow silk and the other in coral silk.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.