What a Country!

“I absolutely and entirely renounce my US nationality together with all rights and privileges and all duties and allegiances and fidelity thereunto pertaining…”

This is the declaration one makes when renouncing one’s US citizenship.

Why would anyone do such a thing? (No matter how bad the news gets.)

One is not allowed to be a US citizen if they serve as an official representative of a foreign country – like ambassador or consular officer. I learned this from the opening chapter of Michael Oren’s Ally as he described the emotional process of giving up his citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

When do we feel most patriotic? At which moments do we feel a special connection to America?

I always got a little lump in my throat when watching the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. What are your patriotic moments?

As we celebrate July 4, it is appropriate to reflect on the greatness, the glory, and even the religious significance of America and the Jewish experience in this country. Especially with all that seems to be going wrong around us, we can use a nice dose of mom and apple pie.

Not all Jews have seen America so positively.

When Jonathan Sarna first became interested in American Jewish History more than 30 years ago, he mentioned his interest to a Torah scholar at a distinguished rabbinical seminary, who was appalled and responded:

“I’ll tell you what you need to know about American Jewish History: the Jews came to America, they abandoned their faith, they began to live like goyim, and after a generation or two they intermarried and disappeared. That is American Jewish history; all the rest is commentary. Don’t waste your time. Study Talmud.”

Thankfully, Sarna did not take the advice, and we are all the wiser for it.

The rabbi did have a point, though. American has not always been an ideal place for Jews or Judaism. From the very first Jews to arrive in this land, we have faced ups and downs,

Simon Pietersen was a merchant from Amsterdam, who reached these shores in 1654, even before the first group of Jewish refugees came from Recife. In 1656, he became the first known Jew on American soil to marry a Christian.

At the same time, there were some early proud, observant Jews who rose to prominence.

Asser Levy, originally from Vilna, arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. At the time, Jews were not allowed to serve on guard duty in which all able-bodied males participated. Instead, Jews had to pay a tax. Levy protested and won. He later fought for Jewish citizenship rights. Levy was a traditional and proud Jew, and, based on the inventory of his estate, historians say he resolutely observed Shabbat and kashrut.

America provided two very different paths for Jews to follow and facilitated two very different Jewish identities. On the one hand, America was referred to as the goldene medina. It was the land of opportunity for Jews living in oppressive lands with limited freedom. On the other hand, American earned the reputation of being the treife medina, the impure country. It was a place where tradition and observance were easily discarded in pursuit of the American dream.

In reality, America is both. The freedom of America enables assimilation, but it also allows for a strong Jewish community and religion to flourish for those who choose. America is both the treife medina and the goldene medina.

Is this good for the Jews? Is it a blessing or a curse? There is an old Buddhist parable that can shed light on the question.

A man once lost his horse, and all his friends said, “That’s bad.” To which the man replied, “Maybe.”

The very next day, his horse rode back into the village together with a wild horse it had befriended while away. Now, the man had two horses. All his friends said, “That’s good.” The man replied, “Maybe.”

The man’s son tried to ride the wild horse, but the horse was not used to being ridden and threw off the rider, breaking the son’s leg. All his friends said, “That’s bad.” The man only replied, “Maybe.”

The next day, an army recruiter came to town and took away all the able-bodied young men to fight in the war far away from home. But when he saw the boy with the broken leg, he let him be. “That’s good,” said the friends. The man had the same answer: “Maybe.”

Is America a blessing or a curse?

Maybe.

It depends on the perspective we take and the choices we make. Will we take advantage of America’s freedom, prosperity, and opportunity to cultivate a golden Judaism and be a beacon of light and hope for all? Or will America be more of a treife medina of squandered opportunity?

During times of pandemic, economic and racial turmoil, partisanship, polarization, and uncertainty (am I leaving anything out?), it is easy to focus on the negative. We can settle back into our set opinions about the direction of the world and who is right and who is wrong. Or we can try and recapture the potential and promise of July 4, 1776. That date (like Israel’s Independence Day) did not solve all the problems. It was a beginning. It was the first tenuous step towards the establishment of the greatest country on earth. Fulfilling our promise only comes from the ability to persevere and remain positive about the future.

What was 14 year-old Moshe Sofer, later known as the Chatam Sofer, doing on July 4, 1776? How did the Vilna Gaon, then 56, react to the “dawn’s early light” on that first 4th of July?

They were fasting. It was the 17th of Tammuz.

On the 17th of Tammuz and during the Three Weeks culminating with Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the tragedies of the Jewish people. Throughout the liturgy of this period, we invoke the hope and prayer that tragedy and challenge should turn into joy and blessing.

Challenges are challenging. They need not defeat us. America in 2020 is still a glorious place. We need to see through the coronavirus, the injustice, the protests, the violence, and the illegal fireworks to see that.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller, the late revered Brooklyn rabbi and yeshiva head, once described his feelings about America. He said:

“We Jews came from countries where we were persecuted, and this country gave us all these rights…[W]e should kiss the ground of America. It’s a gift from Hashem.”

It really is.

We live in complex and challenging times. (When don’t we?) While we try and make sense of the craziness around us and find a way to remain optimistic and make things better – even in small ways. Let’s always remember the gift that is America.

God bless the USA!

 

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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