Break out those straw hats, and white shoes. Yayy! It’s Memorial Day. Summer’s officially here.
Memorial Day was very serious when I was a kid. We often went to the cemetery for the playing of taps and 21 gun salutes (21 is the sum of 1+7+7+6) for the fallen of America’s wars. I marched as a Cub Scout, and then later as a clarinet player with my junior high marching band. It was very solemn.
There were no Memorial Day sales. We would have been shocked. It was serious stuff. Jews became very American during World War II. Half a million Jews served. My father and uncles were all veterans. We Jews served at a higher proportion than the general population. Everybody knew veterans, and every veteran knew someone who had died.
So, for us, Veterans Day, November 11, was also a big deal. My parents still called it Armistice Day. We all wore our red poppies, and stood in silence when the fire house siren went off at 11 AM, on the 11th day of the 11th month, the exact moment the armistice was signed ending World War I.
Later, from 2001 to 2017, when I taught middle school in the States, I would always say a few words about our debt to the men and women in uniform on what we now called Veterans’ Day. A number of students commented on the irony of the fact that the only teacher mentioning it was a rabbi. I didn’t think it was ironic; I thought that it was appropriate
Growing up in Greater Boston during the 50’s and into the 60’s, American holidays were as important to us as Jewish holidays. After all, I was born on the Fourth of July, and was very happy that my father OB”M was always home from work for my birthday.
The two major feasts of the year in the Walk home were the Pesach Seder and the Thanksgiving meal.
Thanksgiving was about food and football. We ate our big meal during the halftime of the Lions vs. Packers game. That was always the game until the NFL/AFL merger. Of course, this was after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. What could be more Jewish than a Jewish store inaugurating the holiday season with the annual introduction of Santa?
My first inkling that things were changing took place when I was a senior at YU. Officially, there were no classes on Thanksgiving, but our Rebbe announced that he was giving shiur on Thanksgiving.
I was caught in a dilemma. I wanted to be true to my Rebbe, but also to my parents. I thought that the decent thing to do was to go to the Rebbe, explain my situation and get permission to miss class. The Rebbe wouldn’t budge. He informed me that officially I wouldn’t be charged with an absence, but, on the other hand, he wouldn’t give permission to miss shiur.
To this day, I don’t know if I did the right thing. I went to shiur with an overnight bag, and as soon as class was over, I ran to the George Washington Bridge Bus Station to catch a Trailways Bus for Boston. My father OB”M picked me up, and we went home for a late Thanksgiving meal. I got home about 6 PM. My sister was livid that I had upset a family tradition. I got caught in the changing face of American Orthodox Jewry.
Up to a certain point in time, there was no seam between my Jewishness and my American identity. There were Orthodox shuls that didn’t say Tachanun (penitential prayer) on American holidays. When I returned to America in 2001 (I came for 4 years; stayed for 16), we joked about the time when our shul hadn’t said Tachanun on these national holidays.
In 1975, I was teaching for Rabbi Riskin in his high school in Riverdale. We had a staff meeting to decide when to give the boys their winter break. Rav Riskin and I were the only ones to vote to keep the vacation during the last week in December. We had joined the decoupling of Americana from Judaism. We now celebrate Yeshiva Week, third week in January, instead of vacationing when the Goyim did.
I thought that we should consider the parents who had some days off from work at the end of December. Plus, there were sibs who might be in non-Jewish schools or colleges. But I lost to yeshivish tendency of separation from American norms, and to lower cost flights to Florida in mid-January.
I think that Jews in America experienced two revolutions in the second half of the twentieth century. The first was a general Jewish American Revolution. From the end of World War II, we became Americans. We finally belonged. Then at some point in the ’60s, there was an American Jewish revolution in which a certain segment of Jews in the US and Canada intensified their Jewish identity.
This second revolution had two segments. One group, which had experienced the Jewish American Revolution, wanted this partnership to continue. We call them Modern Orthodox. The other segment joined those who had come to America after the War, survivors of the Holocaust, and didn’t want to fully engage in the American experience. We call them Chareidim.
To that first segment, I wish a Happy Memorial Day! To the second: Happy Yom HaMeyuchas!
Next: The Search for American Judaism