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Marjorie Arsht 1914-2008

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2008

Marjorie Meyer Arsht, a long-time member and leader of the American Council for Judaism, as well as a Houston civic leader and pioneer in the Texas Republican Party, died in Houston at the age of 93 on January 27.  
Marjorie led an extraordinary life. She was born in Yoakum, Texas, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University at the age of 18, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then earned a Master’s degree at Columbia University. At the age of 84, Marjorie undertook continuing education studies through Rice University’s Advanced Novel Writing Program, giving her the tools to write and publish her memoir at the age of 90, All the Way from Yoakum: The Personal Journey of a Political Insider (Texas A & M University Press).  
Former President George H.W. Bush said this of Marjorie Arsht: “As President of the United States, I was privileged to meet kings and queens, presidents and p rime ministers, and even a few dictators and despots along the way. But I’m not sure any of them compared to Marjorie Arsht, a life force in Texas politics for as long as I can remember. Marjorie was a true pioneer, opening doors for women, and for Republicans a rare breed in Texas before she came along.”  
Few Jewish Families  
In her book, Marjorie recalls that hers was one of the few Jewish families in Yoakum: “No Jewish houses of worship ever existed there, and only two or three Jewish families ever lived in Yoakum at one time. On the holy days ... my father took me to Houston or San Antonio ... The tradition of both my parents’ families was distinctly Reform ... Many of the old traditions, such a dietary laws, were no longer considered mandatory ... I often went to church services with my friends ... While in high school, I went to the Catholic convent for music and French lessons, often attending a Catholic Mass. The diversity of religious experience helped me develop the tolerance necessary to understand that the basis for all religion is essentially the same.”  
As an activist in the small Republican Party of Texas in 1960, Marjorie became involved in John Tower’s successful race for the U.S. Senate in 1961 and in 1962 ran as a Republican for the Texas state legislature. She received the endorsements of all three Houston newspapers, the Press, the Post and the Chronicle, as well as The Informer, then Houston’s leading black newspaper. The Informer told its readers that, “Mrs. Arsht is a Republican and a conservative, but not a squinty-eyed reactionary ... She stands for sound, responsible two-party government in Texas.”  
Of the election results, Marjorie said, “I received 28.9 percent of the vote countywide, which was amazing. West of Main Street, I ran ahead of the governor. Part of my platform had been a plea for single-member districts. Had such lines been drawn at the time, my life might well have taken an entirely different turn.”  
Committed to Black Voters  
When George H.W. Bush was named chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, it was at Marjorie’s home that he was introduced to party activists. Marjorie was committed to bringing black voters into the Republican Party. When George Bush ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, Marjorie hosted a dinner for black Republicans at her home, something unprecedented in Texas at the time.  
In 1979, then Governor William Clements appointed Marjorie to the Board of Regents of Texas Southern University, an historically black college. At the age of 69, Marjorie served as Special Assistant in charge of speech writing for the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988 and was described by The New York Times as the “oldest” delegate. This was not true, Marjorie later said, because an older delegate claimed to be younger than she was.  
Writing in The New York Time (Nov. 10, 1988), Maureen Dowd pointed out that, “Mrs. Arsht first introduced George and Barbara Bush to local political leaders in her living room twenty five years ago ... Marjorie Arsht talked approvingly of the next Secretary of State ... ‘Jimmy Baker grew up here ... I knew him when he was in short pants.’”  
Classical Reform Judaism  
A significant part of Marjorie’s life was involved in advancing the philosophy of classical Reform Judaism and working energetically in behalf of the American Council for Judaism. In her memoir, she writes: “I have never forsaken my position that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and that when religion and the state are intertwined, religion inevitably suffers.”  
Marjorie was particularly disturbed when, in 1961, David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s Prime Minister, addressed a Zionist Congress in Jerusalem and declared that, “All Jews living in the Disapora are living in exile and therefore godless.” She recalled, “I thought the top of my head would fly off when I read the transcript of his speech. I obtained a certified copy to be sure I wasn’t receiving something filtered through someone else’s bias. I flew to the typewriter ...”  
Marjorie dispatched her material to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion himself. She was surprised to receive a reply, “a single-spaced two page letter from one Mr. Applebaum, who identified himself as an aide to Ben-Gurion. He said, ‘You have written with emotion,’ and then proceeded to defend Ben-Gurion. ‘You must not have read the entire speech, or you would have understood that Mr. Ben-Gurion spoke “allegorically.”’ He tried to explain the historical context in which Ben-Gurion had spoken. Of course, I had to reply.”  
Word got around about the exchange and Marjorie was invited to speak in Philadelphia at the annual American Council for Judaism meeting, and her speech was published in Issues. She even heard from New York Times editor Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who invited her to visit him in New York. She recalled of this meeting: “Sulzberger agreed with my objections to Ben-Gurion’s remarks. Furthermore, he worried about the many anomalies that were developing. For instance, because of Israel’s ‘law of return’ which guaranteed a right of citizenship to every Jew born of a Jewish mother, a Catholic monk from Austria had arrived in Israel, demanding his citizenship rights. His mother was Jewish and that qualified him.”  
Concerned about Recent Trends  
Marjorie was concerned about recent trends in Reform Judaism: “The Reform Judaism with which my father and I were imbued is gradually disappearing ... It is becoming, as many religions are, more fundamentalist and therefore less and less distinguished from other branches of Judaism ... I loved the opportunity to speak out on Zionism in all its aspects, not just because I am at heart a teacher but also because I felt I was doing a service by clarifying a subject generally considered too sensitive to discuss ... either between Christians and Jews or among Jews with different built-in attitudes. I particularly liked calling attention to the misuse of words. For example, it is correct to contrast Hebrews with Gentiles (tribes) and Jews with Christians (religions) ...”  
In a talk to Houston Republicans on December 13, 1994, entitled “Who and What Are the Jews?”, Marjorie told her audience: “I urge all of you to pursue a study of comparative religions. It is fascinating to discover how the practices of primitive peoples who were in such awe of the changing of the seasons have influenced our own festivals and holy days. Through the ages, very different religions developed different rituals and celebrations. But if you search deeply enough, they have a strangely comparable basic meaning. Christmas and Hanukkah are both festivals of light and hope, and are occasions for the exchange of gifts. Easter and Passover represent rebirth and new beginnings. My father used to say that in order to truly understand and appreciate one’s own religion, it was necessary to understand all others. Certainly, we should bring to our modern, sophisticated society an understanding and respect for different methods of faith and of worship of the supreme being who is the creator of us all.”  
“America the Beautiful”  
At Marjorie’s 90th birthday celebration in Houston, one of the speakers was Issues editor Allan Brownfeld, a close friend of Marjorie’s for nearly fifty years. He was an honorary pallbearer at her funeral.  
In his eulogy at Marjorie’s funeral at Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi David Lyon spoke of his friendship with Marjorie and of their many conversations about both politics and the changes taking place in Reform Judaism. He noted that they often disagreed and reported that in her hospital room the day before her death the friendly debate continued. At her funeral, both the Jewish prayer for the dead and “America the Beautiful” were chanted by Cantor Robert Gerber.  
We extend our condolences to Marjorie’s daughter Lesley, her son Alan, and her grandchildren.

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