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Inheriting America, then choosing America

Questions of freedom and individuality captivate me, and not only on July 4 - they're why I chose the US, even as they bolster my Jewish identity
The kippah I wear on Independence Day, when I pay my taxes, and whenever I or the country needs some extra spiritual-civic strength. (courtesy)
The kippah I wear on Independence Day, when I pay my taxes, and whenever I or the country needs some extra spiritual-civic strength. (courtesy)

This week, I printed out a copy of the declaration of intent to become a United States citizen made by my great-grandfather, Wolf Landsman, in the city court of Utica, New York. My sister Ellen found this document a few years ago, which is dated July 8, 1893.

In it, my great-grandfather declares that he renounces all allegiance to the czar of Russia, which I can’t imagine was very difficult for him. What was difficult for him was English. The document is filled out in beautiful handwriting, but not his; it belongs to Clarence Stetson, a court clerk who, a couple of decades later, became president of the Common Council, Utica’s city council. Mr. Stetson’s impeccable penmanship records Wolf Landsman’s city of birth in Russia, though it looks to me like the clerk just made up some approximation of what he heard my great-grandfather say. All my great-grandfather could do was mark an X.

Wolf Landsman was 18 years old when he landed in New York City, and he was 21 years old when he came to the court in Utica for this declaration, and thanks to him and my other seven great-grandparents, 130 years ago, give or take, I am a citizen of the United States of America.

When I was 21 years old, I decided to leave the United States, and while I was still 21, I decided once and for all not to. I turned 21 in Israel, living for a year in fulfillment of an intention I declared when I was just about to turn 18. On July 8, 1988, 95 years after Wolf Landsman’s declaration of intent to become an American citizen, I was in between, just back to the States and with a plan to spend the next seven years studying before I would make aliyah. But sometime in the last two months of my age, I realized I still wanted to be American.

Two things happened that fall when I returned to college from my year away. One was I met a girl, who is now my wife.

The other is a bit harder to describe, because it has to do with ideas. I realized that the ideas I found most compelling, even after a year in Israel, were American ideas, and the questions that I couldn’t stop talking about were American questions.

The life of my mind was American. What I found engrossing was: freedom and individuality, and how freedom and individuality are the biggest challenges to community and the soil in which community grows or does not grow. And how freedom and individuality are the biggest challenges to figuring out how much we are responsible for one another, which is the fundamental question of politics and government.

I was utterly surprised to discover that I was still American deep down, after a year in Israel immersed in Talmud, which I had never studied before, and after working so hard to become a fluent speaker of Hebrew, and finally being comfortable in the yeshivish banter that makes religious Jewish college students feel like one of the crowd. My ratio of non-Jewish to Jewish friends had dropped rapidly. That was the 21-year-old who decided he was permanently American. That guy was studying Talmud in his free time, with Thoreau and Emerson and Tocqueville and Carol Gilligan sitting on his shoulder and stuck in his head.

Obviously the girlfriend was a factor, since she had no interest in aliyah – but we had just started dating, so how big a factor could that have been? What I think actually happened is that I noticed how little sleep I was losing about this difference between us. That was surprising too, since I was a brooder by nature. But I didn’t feel any inner tension, like this was an argument we were going to have to have one day about the future of our relationship. That’s what I noticed, that’s what clinched it for me: This isn’t hard for me. I really am going to stay here in America.

My candidate for president got destroyed that year; my political philosophy was repudiated nationally, which is to say my own interpretation of these ideas about freedom and individuality and community that were all I could think about and talk about. But I didn’t say to myself: See, you don’t belong here. Just the opposite.

I was coming to realize that I was addressing the American ideas at the core of my life in a Jewish way, on all kinds of levels.

In my mind, this is how I think about freedom and individuality: Henry David Thoreau, who would not compromise one bit with conventional society and went off to live in the woods all on his own, who went to jail rather than pay taxes that would help fund what he thought was an unjust war – he is talking to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who in the Talmud was banished after he couldn’t persuade the rest of the rabbis to set the law his way, even when God sent miracles and a voice down from Heaven to back him up. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on individualism talks to Rav Yosef Soloveitchik’s essay on sh’lichut, on finding one’s unique individual mission in the world.

I think about how freedom is the basic, precious truth we learn from the Exodus, and how much more precious that freedom is than what John Locke or Thomas Jefferson ever wrote about. How that freedom compels us to stop at Mt. Sinai and enter into covenant, and what that teaches about the kinds of covenants free people in America have to make or ought to make.

I think about how freedom is what allows us to think new thoughts and be wrong without being thrown in jail, and what forces synagogues to be compelling or wither away, instead of just being the thing your parents did so you do too.

I think about how freedom is also the fundamental challenge to our humanity, even the basic idol. It was free people who chose the make a golden calf and worship a thing made of gold. It was free people who imagined themselves trading the challenge of rising spiritually for the fleshpots back in Egypt and the thought of a life free of difficult decisions and moral agency. That Torah about freedom talks to the challenges today, of freedom that opens up to mere materialism, to unrestrained competition and social competitiveness. A freedom that can make everything a commodity, including ourselves — allowing our interests, our time, even our unique talents to be valued in our own eyes by what they are worth in the short-term to others. Freedom can overwhelm us with the present moment, with all the choices right now of what to do or buy or think or be outraged about. All of which can disconnect us from the larger and longer stories we are part of, which we author and co-author.

I think about how the tradition that views tzedakah more as taxation than charity wants us to understand the blessing we say first thing in the morning, praising the Divine she’asanu b’nai chorin, who has made us free people. How does the person who wakes up into freedom also wake up into responsibility? I want to know how — in talmudic detail and philosophical detail and political detail — how do we deal with the question of freedom and mutual responsibility.

Some look at the phrase “Jewish American,” or “American Jew,” and see a space between the words, a gap between two aspects of consciousness. Or they see a dash like a minus sign, where one word or maybe both take something away from the other. I see rather a chemical bond, not ionic, but covalent. A sign of the energy that flows uniquely when two entities are bound together, and something new emerges that is different from either atom on its own.

The hyphen in “Jewish-American” is one of the most exciting things I know. What made me decide to be American, to file my own declaration at the age of 21, just as my great-grandfather had, is that hyphen. Being Jewish is how we understand being American; being American is how we find the greatness in Judaism.

I’ve been talking about ideas in my head, but those ideas are tied up with stories, about my past and the teachers and role models related to those ideas, and the projects and mitzvahs and failures around those ideas, and the communities made possible around those ideas. I teach regularly that we each need to reconnect to our own ideas about freedom and individuality and community and responsibility, and to the stories of our lives and our legacies. It has soothed me this past week to do this; it has soothed me whenever America has been hard to celebrate.

But it’s about more than soothing. Our environment of free press and free expression, which are great freedoms that environment can also take our breath away quite literally. The only way we reclaim the capacity to act freely is to reconnect ourselves to our ideas and to the stories around those ideas. We become bigger than the difficulty of the moment — we get more breath and breathing room — when we think about freedom, and when we tell the kinds of stories I am telling, and bring all the characters in those stories to our side again.

There is nothing more practical in this moment. We need our ideas, and we need all those stories. We need them in our minds and we need to share them in conversations, our partners in action and the people who matter to us the most. The people who get things done, who make a difference in our country, are people who know in depth what they think about freedom and responsibility, and why.

You may think this doesn’t matter, that someone has decided what the official answer is to all these questions, and what difference does it make what you think. But freedom isn’t just about what the Supreme Court says. It’s about our culture. It’s about what we teach and model for our young people. It’s about how freedom and community are expressed in our cities and towns, which are very much under our control. It’s about how we build community in conditions of great freedom and individuality among Jews. And it’s about how we understand ourselves, in every way we have agency.

I pulled out my great-grandfather’s citizenship declaration this week because I was invited to say some words at an event this week about immigration issues. At the last minute, I found out that our talks would be translated on the fly for those whose English is comparable to my young great-grandfather’s. And when the evening was over, I thought about how remarkable that Wolf Landsman’s American declaration could be read out 129 years later almost to the week by his great-grandson, the rabbi, in a New England church, his Russian-speaking X and the court clerk’s beautiful English becoming a story retold extemporaneously in Spanish. Then, in the hour that followed, I listened to familiar themes and to new stories, from people and groups I don’t know well enough, who are new to this country in our generation. Now their ideas about individual freedom and the potential for community join the mix in my head, and remind me that I have to keep engaged in thinking and working on the same ideas and the same questions. And so too must we all.

That’s hard work, but good work. It has been a difficult couple of weeks and more, but still we deserve a celebration. To help us look back, and look around, and look in our minds to locate ourselves again on this weekend of celebrating American freedom. We will find ourselves and become larger again. This is where we are supposed to be. Right here, in the United States of America. Choose America, again. Find yourself here, and you won’t find yourself alone.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett serves the Jewish community of southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. He is co-host of "Tov! A Podcast About 'The Good Place' and Jewish Ideas", available on podcast apps and tovgoodplace.com. He blogs at rabbijon.net and Rabbi Jon’s Podcasts are available through Apple and Podbean. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the organizer of howtobepresident.org, an initiative to transform how we choose a president by asking better questions.
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