Although I live and work in Italy, I am a first-generation Jewish Italian-American. My dad came from war-weary Europe to make his way in America. He traveled with all the essentials, which in those days were two battered suitcases, a shopping bag and a crumpled shred of paper that bore the address of a sponsoring cousin. The family spoke not a word of English but my dad recalls how words weren’t necessary. When they saw the Statue of Liberty they broke down in tears of joy for what they believed was their salvation and indeed their only hope. In those days immigrants had to have an American sponsor and a job. They had to learn English and become citizens – requirements that my family embraced, not as hardship but as opportunity.
My father (z”l) never stopped talking about how much he loved America. Years later he would often say that if it hadn’t been for American courage in World War II, there wouldn’t have been a Jew left in Europe. Even today, I honor my father’s memory by thanking personally every WWII veteran that I am privileged to meet.
I suppose it’s obvious; I grew up in a patriotic family. My parents knew first-hand what it was like to live in fear for your life. As part of the American army and in the company of Italian partisans, my dad was one of the liberators of the Buchenwald death camp. Like other Jews, my parents had seen hatred and cruelty and had been on the receiving end of antisemitism. They were forever grateful to live in America.
Maybe I’m feeling homesick because I remember how my family took the Fourth of July very seriously. I remember the American flags on the porch and the life-size cutout of Uncle Sam by the door. For years my mom dressed my sister and me in red hats, white shirts and blue shorts for the Fourth of July parade — which we never missed, even if it was pouring rain and we had to wear clear plastic raincoats over our patriotic outfits!
This weekend as we celebrate our nation’s birthday, I suggest that we Jews follow the lead of a number of American rabbis who, over the years, have encouraged us to reclaim the Fourth of July as a day for thanking God for America. In this way we can think of July 4, not only as a “holiday,” but as a “holy day,” as well.
Why? I believe that our founders looked to the first page of the Bible where we read that God created humans in God’s own image. These patriots believed that human life is sacred and that the spark of the divine is deep inside every one of us – a principle that formed the basis of our founding documents.
American values have their roots in Jewish values. In fact Rabbi Ronald Shulman, in his 2017 Rosh HaShanah sermon, reminds us that “On July 4, 1776 Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson became a committee of three tasked with designing a Great Seal for a new nation. Franklin’s design included Moses’ outstretched hands over a split sea as he led the Israelites to their freedom. America’s founders saw themselves and their cause in our story, the Torah story of the Exodus.”
It was and continues to be our belief in freedom, our hatred of oppression and our Jewish dedication to public service that makes America the land of opportunity for anyone who wants to work for a piece of the American pie.
For so many Jews whose family history includes having taken an incredible risk to begin life anew in America, the American flag, like the ones that my father so lovingly displayed, is an important symbol that honors our mothers and fathers, our bubbes and zaydes, our greats and our great-greats who came from the shtetls, the ghettos or the camps with hope in their hearts for a peaceful life and a brand new start.
This year on Tammuz 24 we can offer two greetings; Shavuah Tov for a good week and Chag Sameach for a Happy Fourth. For surely the Fourth of July is also a yontif and a diya sakarado — not just for us, but for all those who believed in the promise of democracy and freedom and risked everything to come to America to find it.