The American and Jewish Fabric of Independence Day
I always associate the Fourth of July with a story that my mother told about her immigrant family arriving in their new home in Bangor, Maine, on Independence Day. Having landed at Ellis Island only a few days before, they reached Bangor in time to see the annual fireworks display on the nation’s 127th birthday.
Most immigrants became proud Americans the minute they set foot in the country, and my mother was no exception. At 12, as a leader of her youth group, she was asked to speak at the dedication of her synagogue’s new building. As quoted in the Bangor daily newspaper, she said, “Our purpose is to help once more uplift the Hebrew flag without wishing in any way to distract from the greatness of, or letting it in any way, affect our allegiance to, the Stars and Stripes.”
She loved American history and especially reading about our presidents. Abraham Lincoln was her favorite subject, and when speaking of Mary Todd Lincoln, she always conveyed empathy for her and the personal family tragedies she endured. She would often say that the one thing she’d like to do is to write a history of presidential children.
My father was no different. An immigrant who came to America as a child, like my mother, he was immersed immediately into the melting pot that was New York City. He often recounted his having to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and recite it in front of his classmates. He did, in heavily-accented English, which drew snickers from some in the class. I believe he told the story not because he was bothered so much by the response from his classmates, but that he was so proud about being able to deliver such an important American speech by heart.
Most of my dad’s working years were spent in the leather goods industry, where he worked as a foreman on factory floors, and later, as a designer and — for a short time — a manufacturer. His specialty became cowboy holster sets for children. Not too far removed from the shtetl, he became fascinated by Western lore, and counted among his favorite authors, Zane Gray, who wrote dozens of novels about the Old West. For a time, he even manufactured Lone Ranger sets, and well past retirement, would be known to pronounce, “Hi-ho Silver,” when that cowboy hero’s name was invoked.
As first-generation Americans, my sisters and I led the usual lives of millions of other young Jews. My first recollection of a Memorial Day parade was the one down Palisades Avenue, in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1955, at age 6. I must have been impressed by what I saw, because a photo exists of me saluting, taken when we had returned home. Later, when we moved to New Hampshire, I played in the high school band and recall marching on Memorial Day and at one of New England’s cherished institutions, Old Home Day, in a town near where we lived.
In small town New Hampshire, the parades down Main Street in Keene were always demonstrations of national — and local — pride. World War I veterans would ride in a “40 & 8” vehicle, made to look like a railroad engine, recalling the trains that brought troops to the French front. The American Legion marching band, with its talented drum major, was always a well-received attraction. Veterans of both world wars always drew applause from folks along the parade route. I was always proud of the fact that one World War I veteran was a member of our community, who became commander of the local American Legion Post.
When World War II began, my father, at 41 and then with two children, was considered too old to serve. But growing up, World War II veterans were everywhere. My first encounter with one such person was one I’ll never forget. My father would bring our car to be repaired at the auto dealer.
The mechanic there was a fellow — then probably around 30-years-old — whom my father told me had lost a leg in the war. He worked under the car on his back on a device that allowed him to slide to where he needed to replace a part. I felt sorry for him, but also looked up to him — as best a 7 or 8-year-old can — for his ability to overcome such a setback. He was one of my very first heroes.
On the Fourth of July, the local baseball field was the site of an American Legion ball game and a barbecue, capped by a fireworks display once it got dark, all organized by the local Rotary Club.
In our synagogue, there was a plaque which displayed the names of the dozen or so young men from our community who had served in World War II. In the small community cemetery, I know of at least one headstone that has “USN” at the top; around Memorial Day, a number of other graves have small American flags placed nearby, where others, who served their country, now rest.
My parents owned a small women’s clothing store on the central square in our town. It was a typical New England town square, framed by an 18th-century Congregational church, with blocks of shops on three sides, and a small pocket park in the center, featuring a Civil War monument looking south down a broad Main Street.
Our store had large display windows and each season we changed the backgrounds, usually seasonal subjects which my father, a talented artist, painted himself. In February, to commemorate both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, he had photos of each enlarged, framed, and displayed prominently. Each year he brought out the photos and made sure to have them visible for all shoppers and passers-by to see.
Many years later, the Fourth of July was a signal day in my personal life. My first date with my wife-to-be was at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the esplanade of the Charles River in Boston. Arthur Fiedler conducted the Boston Pops in a concert celebrating America’s bicentennial. Whenever I hear strains of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” one of the Pops’ signature pieces, I’m brought back to that important anniversary moment in the history of our country.
My parents imbued us with the belief that there was no daylight between being a proud American and being a staunch Zionist and supporter of Israel. Like Justice Louis Brandeis, who made the point early on, we learned that American and Jewish values were mutually reinforcing.
To say we never encountered antisemitism, or that there was never anyone we encountered who didn’t harbor assumptions of dual loyalty, would be untrue. But most of our friends, customers, and acquaintances understood exactly what the tug we had for the Jewish state was all about. In our county there were Finns, French-Canadians, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Poles, and so many others. What brought us together was our common history, and we took every opportunity to celebrate it.
On this Independence Day, I think of several things — that had my grandparents not made that difficult journey to, and been welcomed in, America I would not be here today; the round-ups and shootings in Lithuania, from where my mother came, and the Einsatzgruppen killing squads that liquidated my father’s Russian shtetl, would have seen to that.
I think of the opportunities in this country that have enabled our family, over three generations, to receive a sound education, and to pursue our careers to the fullest. I’m thankful, too, for our freedom to worship unhindered and to proudly work for a strong and secure Israel, a close ally of this country.
Our American democracy, 244 years on, is still a work in progress. That’s as it should be. Values are a base line, and always need to be updated, refreshed, and improved. American Jews have always been in the forefront of that effort. We have given back to this country in many ways, in so many fields that affect each and every American.
It has been a great match, this relationship between our community and the world’s greatest democracy. I hesitate to think of what our world would be without it.
Have a Happy Fourth!
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, Mariaschin directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.