A more perfect union

This will be such a very odd Fourth of July.

On the one hand, fireworks have been going off all over the place for weeks now, mainly in the city but in the suburbs too. They are hard to see — it’s unclear where they’re coming from — but you have to be stone deaf in some neighborhoods not to hear them. It’s also not clear who or why or where, they’re coming from, but it makes sense that it has to do with the sense of frustration, of pent-up worry and nagging uncertainty and borderline depression that is dogging so many — most? — of us throughout the spring and now into the summer.

But it’s almost the Fourth of July! The time when we celebrate the promise of the United States of America, the vast freedom and openness it offered, the view of the Statue of Liberty that it gave so many of our ancestors as they steamed into the harbor, finally clear of the pogroms and poverty and cramped misery of Europe, and the roil of the sea as it sloshes the insides and linings of so many of their stomachs.

Now we know that not all of the promise was real — that it wasn’t made to everyone — and that much of it wasn’t fulfilled. We know that right now it is endangered, as it has not been since the Civil War.

But we always try to work toward a more perfect union because by definition what we have is not perfect. The Founding Fathers who wrote it were far from perfect. Many of them owned slaves, and those who did not gave in to the slave-owners to form the imperfect union because without that compromise there would have been no union at all.

We know that Thomas Jefferson had slaves, and that he fathered children with an enslaved woman. We have no idea what his relationship with Sally Hemings was like — she was enslaved, she was much younger than he was, and she was the half-sister of his adored dead wife. These are circumstances into which we cannot imagine ourselves with any assumption of accuracy. We also know that in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that among humankind’s inalienable rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those lines, those words, those rhythms, pulse through Americans’ bloodstreams with our heartbeats.

Of course the irony is inescapable. You cannot enslave people and then talk about people’s right to pursue happiness; to do that you have to define the enslaved as less than people. But can the mother of your children, with whom you live, be less than human to you?

The world is complicated. People are complicated. Life is complicated. That does not mean that we should shrug and give up on understanding and fixing it. It just means that we must continue to move forward, to look for answers, to try to cherish the abstract goals and the human sacrifices and the leaps of faith that our American ancestors made, and despite covid-19, despite the splintering economy, despite the huge rifts in the experiences that African-Americans and other people of color have and what the rest of us know as our daily reality.

We Jews have known terrible adversity. We have overcome it. We have paid a terrible price — not that we were given the choice — but now we are doing well. We have an obligation to take the message of the Fourth of July at its absolute best seriously, and to help other people work toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just as we have done.

And one other thing. New Jersey’s primary is this coming Tuesday. July 7. Yes, it is a primary, but vote. Get in the habit of voting. Figure out what you believe in, who you think is best situated to get us there, and vote for that candidate.

Remember, the vote in November is one of the most important in our lifetime. Get in practice now. Vote.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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