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The Human Spirit: Citizenship
By BARBARA SOFER
19/12/2013
"Our two grandsons... are growing up as proud Israelis, but I’m not sorry that we have passed on a portion of our family heritage, as well."
 
My husband and I found ourselves recently in the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in the small township of St. Albans, Vermont. We’d come to assist two of our preschool sabra grandchildren in the acquisition of American citizenship in addition to their Israeli citizenship. Driving North from New York, St. Albans, a town of some 7,000 residents, is half an hour beyond Burlington, 25 kilometers from the border with Canada.

Grandchildren of American Israelis aren’t entitled to automatic citizenship, but if their sabra parents have US citizenship, they may qualify. This is a multipart application process with considerable paperwork, at the end of which one is assigned a US Citizenship office.

I don’t know why, but St. Albans is frequently assigned. Many American-background Israeli families have made the journey to northern Vermont. The hotel staff where we stayed was familiar with the seeking out of kosher symbols on the breakfast fare. The pleasant government official greeted our grandchildren with a cheerful “shalom. “ You might say that St. Albans has become well-known and well-thought-of among Israeli Americans abroad.

American History buffs may already be familiar with this town. Like us, on October 19, 1864, Confederate lieutenant Bennett H. Young and fellow rebels checked into a local hotel in what was also a quiet town back then. Pretending they were vacationing, Young and his buddies launched the northernmost action of the Civil War, robbing the three local banks of the considerable sum of $208,000, holding the townspeople prisoner on the village green and taking their horses. Young tried to burn down the town, but his incendiary materials didn’t work. He was arrested but later freed in Canada, where he fled to after the attack.

I mention this bit of history because while little Shlomo and Menachem were being checked out as possible citizens, I was brushing up on facts about America.

The Citizenship and Immigration Services provides a user-friendly brochure and CD called Learn About the United States which contains the background material for the civics test. Our preschoolers were exempt but the civics test as well as a test in reading, writing and speaking English are still part of process of becoming an American citizen.

There’s nothing as obscure as the St. Albans Raid in the brochure, of course.

Potential citizens need to know certain fundamental facts and concepts about the United States of America. There are questions about principles of democracy and government, on the Constitution and facts like the number of US senators and voting members of the House of Representatives and the length of their terms. There are sections on American history such as the names of the original 13 colonies and the writers of the US Constitution, and citizenship questions like what you promise when you become a United States citizen. You have to know who the president and the Speaker of the House are, as well as the officials of your state. You must be able to name an Indian tribe, to know about the civil rights movement and to know what happened on September 11, 2001. There are questions about Woodrow Wilson, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr.

You receive this material to study ahead of time, along with supplemental material for those interested. The test includes 10 questions of the 100, and you have to answer six correctly to pass.

My favorite question of the 100 in the practice brochure is No. 3. The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words? The answer is, of course, “We the people.”

I know I’m sentimental, but when I read those words and looked around the office at St Albans I got unexpectedly teary. We were the only Israelis and there was also a couple from nearby Canada.

But there were also men and women from non-democratic regimes who were now engaged for the first time in the process of becoming part of the people who govern themselves. We the people. Identity is nuanced. I like watching films like Lincoln and Amistad.

My zealous Zionism doesn’t undermine my appreciation of the United States. My own grandparents found freedom from oppression in the US. When Grandpa Fischel was reported for anti- pogrom activity, including throwing a Polish policeman over a fence, he fled, coming steerage to New York. There was the Statue of Liberty (question 95) with the lines from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “The New Colossus,” inscribed. “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lazarus had first turned down a request to write a poem for the statue, but later decided to honor her fellow Jews who, like my grandparents, were fleeing pogroms.

My grandparents never spoke English very well, and I imagine that the test was challenging for them. They never complained about it.

In Vermont, I also thought of my heroine Henrietta Szold, known in Israel because she founded Hadassah and played a key role in Youth Aliyah. But in America’s National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York, she’s listed along with Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller, because she established the model night school for immigrants, in 1889. Her native Baltimore was one of the major ports of entry, and Szold served in her night school as superintendent, teaching- staff and janitor. Eastern European immigrant Jews studied by kerosene lamps in crowded rooms above a shop.

Wrote Szold, “The more advanced pupils – that is to say all such as could spell out words – were given Eggleston’s History of the United States… The history book thus became a universal text-book whence lessons in history, geography, grammar, spelling, writing and conversation were drawn day after day…The eagerness of the pupils was often painful to witness and nothing more pathetic can be imagined than the effort made by men well advanced in years to crook their work-stiffened fingers around a pen. Although they were hard-worked during the day their interest never flagged.”

Our Israeli ulpanim are based on her night-school model. But learning Hebrew is a privilege afforded new immigrants and not an obligation for citizenship.

We didn’t have to learn how many members serve in the Knesset or why that number was chosen, when Independence Day is celebrated or what the Declaration of Independence says.

Considering the frustrating bureaucracy in other aspects of the immigration process – proving you’re Jewish or that you can drive, for instance – that’s probably for the good. It’s hard to imagine a Knesset committee deciding on 100 basic questions, and we American immigrants are notoriously weak in Hebrew proficiency. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that something is lost, too, in forgoing the education for democracy and citizenship. It could be included in Hebrew studies as it was in Henrietta Szold’s night school.

With crayons provided by the hosts, our two grandsons had finished the coloring book pages of the US flags, stars and stripes in red, white and blue.

They received their certificates and we snapped a few photos. They are growing up as proud Israelis, but I’m not sorry that we have passed on a portion of our family heritage, as well.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.
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