As we celebrate the Fourth of July weekend, I am proud to admit that I’m a patriot – a real-life “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” By definition, a patriot is a person having an attachment to his/her country. It is based on a feeling, sentiment, or passion toward national loyalty. I have tremendous hakaras ha’tov to this country, which took my parents in after living through the ravages of the Shoah when no other place wanted them. My folks were given a dollar by the Joint [Distribution Committee] at Ellis Island, which then wished them luck. Baruch Hashem, my parents were able to live out the American Dream. For that I am grateful and have strong feelings for this great country. This, of course, does not in any way negate my devotion and affection for Eretz Yisrael. Israel is my homeland and the US is the place of my birth, plain and simple.
It is imperative to distinguish, however, what true American patriotism means. It is not blind allegiance to land, government, or nation; it is, rather, loyalty to the essence of the message of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It is this reverence for freedom and the principle established in the Declaration that compels us to revere and protect this liberty that we hold so dear.
According to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, America is the most patriotic nation of the world. The Fourth of July is a wonderful time to think about what America means to us. It isn’t just a time for barbecues, fireworks, and parades, but rather a time for reflection about the blessings that we share living in this blessed country. It is a chance to say thank you to America, which guarantees us religious liberty and complete citizenship. It is an opportunity to impart in our children the importance of our flag – how Old Glory’s 13 stripes and 50 stars have relevance and prestige.
I am deeply concerned that the progressive left is manipulating our freedoms. They have zero tolerance for those who do not think the way they do. We just saw how Antifa members beat up a conservative journalist in Portland – so much for the values of freedom of the press and speech.
We should review the Pledge of Allegiance with our children. We used to recite the Pledge to the Flag each morning in school, but I doubt that this is done anymore. It pays to rehash the words with the kids and, if old enough, to rehearse the National Anthem and reiterate to them that it is not just used for the opening of baseball games. It is utterly shameful as to how many children do not know the words to the “Star Spangled Banner.” I totally appreciate how difficult they are. I remember how my father, a European by birth, struggled with it. He would begin the anthem with “Oh, Say Can You See,” getting everyone to join in and continue without him (because he had so much difficulty mastering the words), and he concluded with the group with “and the Home Of The Brave.” It doesn’t help the issue when athletes, whom our children revere, disrespect the flag and our national anthem. Just this week we saw how Megan Rapinoe of the US women’s soccer team refused to sing the anthem during pregame ceremonies. She is representing our country but does not see the need to show the world how patriotic she should be as our representative.
We Jews have been in America since its inception, but the road to total freedom and equality did not come easily for Colonial Jews. The American experience in pre-Revolutionary times was one that permitted old discriminations to be challenged and eventually put aside. Hatred of the Jew and anti-Semitism did exist, but it was able to be diminished as a result of common need and means for survival. Jews persevered and won rights that were nonexistent for them in Europe. They won the right to equal economic opportunity, the right to own land, to go to higher secular education, to serve in the armed militia, to vote (at least the men) and even hold political office.
Not every colony welcomed the Jews. The Puritan-controlled Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, didn’t allow Jews to live under their jurisdiction. But New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island did welcome them. Patrick Henry of Virginia, who rose to make the famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, earmarked that liberty in his thinking was for all except Jews, Blacks, and Indians. It is ironic that such sentiment existed in Virginia of all places, since Jews traced their earliest participation there from the 16th century with Walter Raleigh through Jamestown and the Revolution. The first permanent synagogue community was founded in 1789 in Richmond; they built its first building in 1820.
For the Jew, the Colonial experience was quite different from what they were used to. There was no fully established homogenous governing entity that they encountered. Jews set out to settle wherever the doors were open to them, most frequently, but not exclusively, in the urban areas. For almost 100 years, if one colony refused to grant citizenship to a Jew, the expedient thing was to go to another colony that would grant it. In those communities, Jews were free to fully participate in colonial life, prosper, and practice their faith.
The role of the Jews in the events leading to the American Revolution is largely unrecognized, because they represented a tiny percent of the overall population; but they contributed immensely to the effort nonetheless. The war inflicted great hardships on individuals and communities alike. Many Jewish merchants suffered dislocations and reversals; and for many, personal fortunes dissipated as they found their trade interrupted. Several helped finance the cause, like Haym Salomon, who died bankrupt, due to his total support of the American effort. Jewish trading merchants outfitted their ships to become privateers and ravaged the British at sea. The cost for too many of them was great. Many lost their fortunes.
Jews fought alongside their Christian neighbors as equals in the fight for freedom and independence. Jews were present at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and other battle sites throughout the colonies. Behind the scenes, they provided logistic support by various means, which included equipping soldiers, shipping supplies, and raising funds.
An interesting story about the extent of Jewish involvement occurred right after the Declaration of Independence was written on July 4, 1776. A copy of the document was sent to Amsterdam via the Dutch Caribbean Island of Eustatius. The document was intercepted by the British at sea. An accompanying letter was also taken and sent to London as being a secret code about the document that needed to be deciphered. The letter was written in Yiddish.
The Fourth of July is an appropriate time to make sure that we Jews not take the freedom that we achieved in America, which was unavailable to so many of our ancestors, for granted; we should resolve to use it wisely for the benefit of our community. One important way is to register and vote. We have an election in November that is of pivotal importance to our community. If you are not registered yet, then do so. That is the patriotic thing to do.
Cynthia Zalisky is a community activist who resides in Kew Gardens Hills.