Lady Liberty and Yona Schimmel: Mazel Tov Yankee Nation

Israeli Writer, Tsvi Fishman asks American Jews, Who cares about the Fourth of July?  I do. I’m glad to be a Diaspora Jew in America. I know that sounds to some like it ought to be sung to the tune of the Oscar Meyer Weiner song, but I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m glad to have been born here. I’m glad my parents made that happen. My mother taught us to kiss the ground. I didn’t know why when I was a child. I just did it. Later, I heard about the Europe where she was a little girl and what happened there and why our family on her side is so small.

I love America. I love what it could be, should be, and will be if our hearts win out in the end. And damn it’s good to have a place with that kind of possibility. I love its principles of equality before the law, even if we’re not there yet. I love that its democratic ideals do not stop at mob rule, but seek as well to protect the minority. One day, this nation will protect its masses from the abusive purchase power of big money, too. I believe that. And I love the separation of Church and State, even if some Americans still choke on it. This is not a Christian country. Not a Jewish or a Moslem or a Hindu or an atheist country. And I love that about it. And I love that my Yankee brothers and sisters can be any of these things.

I’m not turning a blind eye to the worst of what we’ve been. To genocide or slavery or the sometimes icy-veined exploitation of innocents at home or abroad. I don’t excuse myself by saying I’m not accountable because I’m a first generation American. When I call myself American, I accept the shame and guilt of it all. You can’t trim off the rotten bits of heritage if you want the sweet stuff. And I do want the sweet stuff.  So, I accept my responsibility to truth, repentence, repair and reconciliation. I choose to use my voice and muscle to make this country a place that not only resists and undermines its own version of the human propensity to screw up badly and with great harm, but actively confronts it wherever it is. I’ve got to do that. I’m an American. It’s what we do. When we are at our best. And damn if that doesn’t fit with the Jew I am, too. Maybe that’s why I love the 4th of July like l love Passover.

Let’s get something straight. Israel is not the nation of the Jews. I won’t take that from anti-Semites, fascists, or religious fanatics of any faith, so I’m not going to take it from Tsvi Fishman. Israel in its modern form was never that. It was and is a nation of Jews, Arabs and others  It was created for Jews. As a refuge. A homeland returned. It has always been the lodestone of our collective compass. Now, it is a center of gravity.

I grew up with Israel in my heart. I remember the family sitting around the radio in 1967, our hearts trembling, hoping for news. It’s one of my earliest memories. And when the victory of Israeli forces came, I cried with my parents from the joy and relief of it. I had no thought at the time for what war meant, or that victory for one is always something else for the defeated. I felt what I felt. And it was something like release, and so light I swear I was lifted by it.

My father was born in Palestine. His was a pioneer family (Rivlin/Lowey/Levin). When they ascended to the land of Israel in the nineteenth century, they were heeding the call of the Vilna Gaon, whose father was my own 7th great grandfather. Today, my cousins are secular and deeply religious, peace activists and settlers, artists and musicians and teachers and business people and politicians. They are my family. And when I’ve been to Israel, I’ve felt among family.

I love Israel. Despite the shame I feel for some of its actions and attitudes. I love her despite her theocratic loons and ugly cronyism. Despite my disgust at the chief rabbinate. Despite racist attitudes toward some immigrants and Arabs. Despite the onerous and cruel occupation. Despite how I wince every time fear is used as a justification for the dehumanization of others. Despite all these un-Jewish things, and notwithstanding the self-congratulatory mew of people like Tsvi Fishman, I love her.

Early American pioneers may not have been my physical ancestors, but America isn’t a nation that counts its members by bloodline. The heirs of those pioneers adopted me. When I think of the lady on Liberty Island—I used to sit on my fire escape in an apartment across the street from Pier 69 in Brooklyn and look out at her—I know where I am. Just inside the door of a house that is my home.

Now, I am an heir to the great hope of this ongoing experiment, as are my children. I’m so glad of that. My kids are not like the Jews of the previous generations in Europe. And they are not like Israeli children. They are diaspora Jews, and that is a great thing. They are American, and that is a great gift. They have many heroes., Hebrew and otherwise.  Maybe new generations will learn what they have to teach one another. But first we have to stop asking silly questions, like which side would you fight on in a war. It’s amazing how such shallow thought makes such deep crap. If I couldn’t get out of it, I’d fight on the right side, of course. Doesn’t everyone?

It’s not about hot dogs versus falaffel, Fishman.  It may be about why you can’t get a decent knish in Jerusalem.  You can be a Jew in New York like nowhere else in the world.  You’ve got Ta’ami hummus, but we’ve got Yona Schimmel.  You can’t beat that.  It eats at you, doesn’t it?

Needless to say, both sides (Diaspora and Israeli Jews) need to recognize their perspectives are limited and there’s a lot to learn. That just takes some sense and maturity. That shouldn’t be hard to muster.  Eventually.  In the meantime, damn straight I’m going to celebrate the Fourh of July.  You bet it’s mine to celebrate.  I can’t think of a better reason.  Beer and Barbecue, baby.  Mazel Tov Yankee nation.