Red and Blue and White: Being an American and a Jew
I know from conversations I have had with Israelis, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand how Jews can feel so at home, so safe, so self-assured in the United States. For so many of our co-religionists—those who were forced to flee from oppressive regimes in the former Soviet Union, or Ethiopia, or those whose parents and grandparents fled from or grew up in the ashes of state-sanctioned hatred—they cannot possibly understand how we can live so calmly and unafraid in this nation. They can’t quite understand what it means to be an American and a Jew.
At the same time, I know from conversations I have had with people in my own congregation, not all American Jews feel the same way. Older congregants especially, those who have vivid memories of subtle (or not so subtle) anti-Semitism or who bumped up against quotas, find it hard to understand how Jews of younger generations find little or no trouble harmonizing these two powerful aspects of our individualized personhood, to be an American and a Jew.
Setting aside, for a moment, the current political climate that is causing our community so much consternation, this is a fair question for all of us to consider: how do we feel an affinity for this nation, or its founders, when we are so far removed from them? We are taught from an early age that the American colonies were populated, in part, by people seeking religious freedom. Although it is true that in the aftermath of the American Revolution, George Washington famously promised the “Hebrew citizens” of Rhode Island that the government of the United States would “give no sanction to bigotry nor assistance to persecution,” in fact, the religious freedom sought by those who came to the New World was merely the freedom to practice different forms of Christianity.
So what does it mean to be an American and a Jew?
When I have been asked – or tried to answer – this question over the years, I have related it to the following aspect of Jewish practice: When candidates study toward conversion, they are not only given new names, but new ancestors as well. We identify Jews-by-choice by referring to them as the “son” or “daughter” of Abraham and Sarah. This terminology signifies that they have been brought into a new family and made part of a new lineage, but not that there is anything wrong with their former family of origin. Neither can they claim a blood descent from Abraham or Hannah, Moses or Ruth, but only that they have new ancestors on whom they can depend, to whom they can lay claim, and with whom they can feel a kinship.
The same phenomenon exists for American Jews. My great-grandparents came to this country in the early 20th-century, and I cannot, with any accuracy, trace my ancestry further back than that. Although I am not certain, it is highly unlikely that I am descended from Thomas Jefferson. And yet, I know he wrote the Declaration of Independence for me.
Much ado has been made recently about the impact Jews had on the young Alexander Hamilton. Again, whereas I lack any evidence, I am fairly certain that none of my ancestors was among those influencers. But I do know that in the Federalist Papers, Hamilton promulgated a strong federal government to protect my family. Perhaps there were Hebrews among the patriots who shed their blood at Lexington and Concord, at Bunker Hill, at Saratoga and at Yorktown, but surely my ancestors were not among them. Nonetheless, I know those brave precious souls, and the countless others who followed them at Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Normandy, and in Iraq and Afghanistan—by now many of whom were of Jewish stock—fought and died to make real and keep real the dream of our free and independent nation.
Reform Jews are fond of saying, “We are not Reform-ed. We are Reform Jews. Reform is a verb; we are always in the process of becoming.” The same is true of Americans. We do not celebrate the Declaration of Independence as a document written once, long ago, to a foreign people. It is for us, all of us, today. We do not celebrate the Constitution as a slate given once, immutable and changeless. We believe the Constitution is a living document, always in the process of becoming. America is not perfect, but we continually strive for the values on which it is predicated: freedom, opportunity, hope. What could possibly be more Jewish than that?
I am an American and a Jew. May God always bless me – and all of us – to be both.