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Capturing the Jewish meaning of July 4th: American independence
By DAVID GEFFEN
07/04/2019
In the summer of 1915, the following appeared: “War is always the hardest on the Jews. They have no voice in the government. They are subjects of personal and official persecution.”
Over a century ago, the noted novelist and publicist Abraham Cahan wrote about the “empowerment and energy he derived from American life.”

“I felt America’s freedom every minute. I breathed freer than I had ever breathed before... America was, in a literal sense, a new world, a strange world, a disagreeable world, but also a challenging world, that strengthened me with a strong, healthy odor like that of a freshly plowed field. America intrigued me, puzzled me. It seemed to me that America lives more in one day than Russia does in 10.”

How did Southern boys like myself become American patriots? There were a few firecrackers.

However, there were somewhat safer ways of building our patriotic feelings.

Where in the world but in America can you sing to freedom’s song? “This is my Country,” “God Bless America,” and “America the Beautiful” had their own potency. These were songs which I recall singing enthusiastically and with deep feeling for Fourth of July celebrations, both in school and at Camp Daniel Morgan in Rutledge, GA, at Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, NC, and at Lakewood Park. We were young then. Our counselors, World War II vets and other old-timers, expressed that patriotic spirit. We just followed along in an exciting fashion.

What was transpiring in the 1940s and early 1950s had deep roots in the Southern Jewish mind as a part of the larger framework of what Prof. Beth Wenger of the University of Pennsylvania has described in her book History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage.

In an article in the weekly Sunny South, printed in Atlanta from the 1880s until the first decade of the 20th century, there is an article on July 5, 1902, in which a professor provides some of the history of the observance of July 4th. “The first organized celebration of independence was in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777,” during the Revolutionary War itself. “The ships in the harbor were decorated in the nation’s colors, red, white and blue.

“Cannons roared out thirteen gun salutes in honor of each state. Parades and fireworks spiced up the festivities.” By the time of that article, there were enough Jews in Atlanta that on July 4th, in front of the temple, “an American flag was proudly displayed outside on the street.”

Citing the Jewish educator Ben Edidin, in his manual on Jewish holidays of which American Independence Day was one, Professor Wenger notes, “The Declaration of Independence granted Jews unprecedented freedoms, and therefore, they should celebrate as a sacred occasion, the holiday that commemorated the document’s adoption.” Taking it one step further, American Jews should recognize that their “liberties” in the USA stem from the birth of the nation so the “fourth” should be celebrated as Passover, our original festival of freedom.

Tracing the history of the Jewish observance of American Independence Day, Wenger pinpointed the origin. “As early as 1858, the prominent Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise declared, “Next to the Passover feast, the Fourth of July is the greatest, because it is a memorial of the triumph of liberty.” Always a champion of the notion that the freedoms of the United States constituted a fulfillment of biblical principles, Wise referred to Independence Day as “the second redemption of mankind from the hands of their oppressors.”

In a short story on July 4, 1900, in the Yiddish Jewish Daily Forward, is a description of Joseph Feldman, an immigrant who came alone to American shores. It was difficult for him to become a part of his adopted land. Fortunately, he discovered a Yiddish translation of the Constitution and excitement reigns. “Joseph Feldman came to regard this small booklet as a little Torah... only after reading it was he able to grasp the nature of the land in which he had settled, the sort of rights with which this land endowed him.”

In a story in the Atlanta Georgian in the early 20th century, there were many noted Americans quoted as to why the United States of America was such a bulwark of freedom and why that should always be the case. Dr. Cyrus Adler, who had been a curator at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and later President of both Dropsie College and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was quoted: “We in America have every reason to be thankful to God and to our country for the freedom and happiness we, as Jews, enjoy here in the United States.”


ALONGSIDE THAT story were reports of the tragic events in Russia, where the Jews were being massacred. One headline read, “Hebrew girls are going mad after horrid attacks.”

Wenger explains the process of sanitizing the Fourth of July celebrations starting with 1906, since participants, because of the fireworks, had lost eyes, been burned and died in the exuberance.

Jews, like all ethnic groups and immigrants, were urged to enjoy the festivities which were being safely organized. “Jewish groups,” Wenger writes, “took part in these coordinated communal exercises, but like most other ethnic associations, also sponsored events in their own neighborhoods and under the auspices of their own institutions. In 1911, Chicago Jews joined in the official parade organized by the Sane Fourth movement but staged their own celebration at the Chicago Hebrew Institute.”

The following year in Chicago, Mark Weinberg put out a handwritten book in Hebrew of the Psalms with his own illustrations, and a title page which included the words degel artzot habrit (“flag of the USA”) and a drawing of the stars and stripes with forty-six stars.
The Athens Georgia Daily Banner was a very enlightened newspaper and carried many stories about the local Jewish community, and also wrote about the state of world Jewry.

In the summer of 1915, the following appeared: “War is always the hardest on the Jews. They have no voice in the government. They are subjects of personal and official persecution.”

The story emphasized how Jews were able to reach American shores: “Jewish immigration to this country is assisted, as is that of other nations, by friends already in the country, who give generously to the oppressed of their race. From all over the world, Jews enter and become devoted Americans. The stars and stripes hang proudly in their hearts.”

During World War I, the Jewish Educational Alliance of Atlanta was a center for several thousand Jewish soldiers who were stationed in the military training camps in the vicinity. In addition to the Jewish holiday events prepared by the local Jewish community volunteers, there were celebrations on Thanksgiving and July 4th. In the Tag Yiddish newspaper, a story about soldiers in Atlanta appeared in July 1919, probably sent in by a local resident. “Hurray America was felt by all of us as our children marched before the soldiers with flags. These youngsters wanted our defenders to know how much they enjoyed meeting them – shaking their hands and then singing Yiddish songs for them. For me, the American flag teaches happiness, joy and freedom, too. Happy birthday to our country.”

I was privileged, as were many of you, to know Prof. David Macarov, who made aliyah with his wife, Frieda, in 1947. Both fought in the 1948 War of Independence. After the war was over, the Macarovs returned to the USA, where David earned his PHD in social work. They returned in the early 1950s and he became the first professor in the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He died at the age of 97 a few years ago. He left me essays he had written, aside from copies of the 24 books he published. One piece of his is most appropriate.

 “You realize that without the United States’ openness to accepting Jewish immigrants from 1881 until the immigration quotas of 1924, there would not be an American Jewish community today of six million as successful as it has been. Moreover, too many people have forgotten about how boldly the US fought to defeat Hitler and his partners and the Japanese and their allies.”

I was one of 550,000 Jews who served in the US military. We now also know that over half-a-million Jews fought in the Red Army. That victory seven decades ago saved the world, and saved the world for Jews. Always remember that American Jews who came from Europe from the 1880s, and people like myself, have celebrated July Fourth, American Independence Day, every day of our lives. I believe only a Jew like Irving Berlin could have written “God Bless America.”
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