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Of Anthems and Emblems

Of Anthems and Entryways

July 3, 2020

Of all the questions that my kids have asked me about holidays and celebrations, and why we do what we do- I was truly surprised this week, when Lola stumped me.

“Mommy- what is July 4th? How do we celebrate?”

“Ok, I can answer this” I thought to myself. I reminded her about the July 4th carnival at camp, and fireworks, and picnics.

“But what are we celebrating?” she asks.

“Our founding fathers…. “

“What about our mothers?” she presses back.

“Right, so— well, back then…” Something about declaring independence and celebrating freedom?

I have never felt so woefully ill equipped to teach my own child about a holiday.

So what is it, in the national ritual of bbqs and fireworks that we are really celebrating?

-is it freedom and justice for all?

-is that we truly hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women 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?

Martin Kaplan, a USC expert on media and society writes: ““If democracy is America’s civic religion, then its sacred text is the Declaration of Independence,”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the symbols and signs of what it means to be American— the words, the emblems, the anthems and artifacts that tell us who we aspire to be as a nation.

We are living in a moment where more and more, we are becoming aware of the particular lens through which most of us learned history.

It’s no accident that for those of us who grew up in American public schools, we learned about Helen Keller, but not WEB DuBois.

We learned about the New Deal, and not about “red lining”. We learned about or lived through the Watts and LA Riots, but didn’t learn about Tulsa or Juneteenth.

Words and stories matter— the stories we pass down shape the way in future generations will not only undersatnd history, but how they will see themselves.

And, in a year like this, many of us may wonder, is that promise of America still worth celebrating? Spoiler alert: It has to be. Otherwise we have failed at the great Jewish promise of hope.

And so on this July 4th weekend, I am seeking out understandings of America, that by writ of privilege and circumstance, are newer to me.

Stories, like the one we learn from Frederick Douglass’ July 4th speech

In a July 4th speech in given in 1852, Douglass said:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Douglass’ words are prophetic— he calls the 4tth of July a “day that reveals”. His words call to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, whom we read on Yom Kippur—looking to the people, and how they behave on that most solemn and sacred day, he asks

Is this the kind of fast I desire? A day of merely depriving one’s body? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ash? Do you call that a fast, a day in which the Lord delights? Is not the fast that I desire the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of all those oppressed,  the breaking of the yoke of servitude?

Like the performative piety of the people that Isaiah addressed, Frederick Douglass’ words echo forward into history, asking us to consider the meaning of this holiday this year.

How will we make it more than a hollow mockery?

Or, perhaps, how might we observe and celebrate, rather than ignore it out of shame or despondency?

I don’t have an easy answer for these questions—certainly no better than the ones I offered Lola this week.

But I do take comfort in knowing that we too can grow and change. We too can have hope.

I am reminded of the words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, like a giant mezuzah affixed[1] to the doorway into America. The poet Emma Lazarus reminds us:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This is the America that gives me hope.

This is the America that reminds me that we can edit the history books. We can add

to the story. We can have hope. And we can change.

[1] With thanks to Rabbi Jason Fenster for this image.

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