Every year on the Fourth of July, my mother and stepfather host about 50 people, newborns to retirees, at a multigenerational backyard party at their home in suburban New Jersey. We schmooze around the grill, cool off in the pool or with a beer, and shuck corn on the cob. My sister Barrie makes an American flag berry cake, and my sister Cheryl makes a cake that looks like a hamburger. Fireworks light the night sky. It’s all typical Independence Day stuff.
But we also do something unique that I wish were more universal: We mindfully read aloud the Declaration of Independence.
We each recite a paragraph, the same way participants at our familygo around the table retelling the Exodus story on Passover. In fact, this annual reading has become so central to my Independence Day observance that missing it feels like sitting down to a seder without a .
The tradition started about 15 years ago, suggested by my brother-in-law Steve, who was raised Catholic. To me, this practice is a perfect example of Reform Jewish thinking. Reform Judaism encourages questioning the meanings behind our rituals so we understand fully our choices to observe them or not. One of the most crucial elements of this exploration is the study of primary texts.
The Declaration is as important to my identity as a Jewish American as the Torah is to my identity as an American Jew. How can my husband and I teach our 8-year-old daughter to be proud of her country and value its sacrifices without explaining the actual reasons we enjoy freedom to this day?
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The main point that Thomas Jefferson and the authors took such pains to explain is that war should be avoided at all costs. However, they make the case that an injured party can only suffer such “a long train of abuses and usurpations” – 27 listed grievances against the British crown, to be exact – before finally standing up to say “enough.”
Too often these days, it seems Congress and our elected leaders could use a reminder of the Declaration’s specifics. Our citizens and our media could, too. Stepping out of our social media-fueled, nonstop daily lives to be reflective and grateful could help repair the world, and make ourselves happier, too - and I pledge to do it more often.
It only takes 10 minutes to read the entire document, and it’s easy to have fun. We don revolutionary-style paper hats dating back to the 1976 Bicentennial (yeah, we hang on to things), intone the reading with dramatic flair, and interject the occasional “huzzah!” The language is of the time, of course. There are many ten-dollar words, painstakingly phrased for strategic effect during that sensitive geopolitical climate, but the meaning is plainly clear and powerful.
It’s also impossible to overlook what else is present both in the wording and in the historical narrative. The framers were imperfect. Native American xenophobia is explicitly mentioned in the Declaration. Slavery and civil rights, gender inequality, religious diversity, and other battles important in society today aren’t addressed and had yet to be fought. But I keep in mind a favorite Winston Churchill quote of my father’s, a history buff: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
After the reading, we all sign a printed copy – with a ballpoint, not a quill, but the effect is that we all “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Much like all Jews in every era should feel that we ourselves were freed from Egypt, and were personally present for the giving of the Torah at Sinai, I hope every American feels ownership of the Declaration of Independence.
Let’s all make ourselves witnesses to what happened in Philadelphia that summer in 1776. Try it yourselves this holiday, and please comment below to let me know if you do!
Looking for Jewish recipes to incorporate into your Fourth of July celebration? Try "18 Recipes for a Jewishly Inspired Independence Day Menu."