Ten years ago when I first heard Reb Zalman (zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing!) teach in person, he sighed that the Fourth of July had once been an important yontif (holiday), but seemed no longer to be so for many American Jews. He was talking about how certain ideas don't necessarily hold the power for us that they did in earlier eras. (For instance, "King" used to work well as a metaphor for God, but today it doesn't have the resonance it used to, so we've needed to find different partzufim, different "faces" of God, to which we can better relate.)
I suspect that when Reb Zalman was a young man it was easier than it is today to feel unambiguous patriotism. That may have been especially true for Jews who came here in the wake of the Shoah and saw America as the goldene medina, the golden land of opportunity and freedom where it was safe to be a Jew and where anyone could succeed. Certainly that was true for Reb Zalman, as it was true for my grandparents -- all of whom escaped wartorn Europe, all of whom lost loved ones in the Shoah, all of whom found new opportunity in this land.
In my generation, at this moment in time, patriotism can be a complicated thing. Many of us have mixed feelings about our government and its actions, regardless of which party is in power. We're increasingly aware of how our nation's exercise of power around the world can be problematic. We're also increasingly aware of systemic racism and injustice -- places where our nation hasn't lived up to our hopes.
I love many things about this country; I love many places in this country; I love many of the ideals of this country. But I don't love everything that this national entity does. And patriotism seems inextricably linked with nationalism, and nationalism has led to a lot of suffering around the world in recent history. As Lee Weissman tweeted a few days ago:
The simple cure for Nationalism should be a decent high school course in Modern European history.— Lee Weissman (@JihadiJew) July 2, 2014
It seems to me that nationalism played a role in both World War I and World War II. (Certainly German nationalism was one of the forces which fed into Hitler's ascent to power and the horrors of the Shoah and the deaths of millions.) Nationalism played a role in the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, in which at least a million people were killed and some 12-14 million people were displaced. And I think nationalism plays a role in the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
In our household we talk a lot about cosmopolitanism, embracing the notion of being a citizen of the world in all of its interconnectedness. Here's how my husband Ethan described cosmopolitanism in an interview with Henry Jenkins:
[Kwame] Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.
(Read the whole interview at Henry Jenkins' blog. And hey, while you're at it, read Ethan's award-winning book Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, And How To Rewire It.)
What does one do with all of these feelings on the Fourth of July?
For me, the glorious Fourth feels a little bit like the tailgate party outside a Green Bay Packers game. Does that sound sacreligious? I suppose that's evidence for Reb Zalman's theory that for many Jews today, Independence Day is less a yontif than it was for our forebears. But I don't mean it as a knock on the day. It's great to celebrate one's team and the community which has arisen around that team -- as long as one doesn't fall into the fallacy of imagining that people who support a different team are inferior.
How will we celebrate the Fourth? Weather permitting, we'll go to the sweet little parade in a nearby town. Everyone will be wearing red, white, and blue. There will be bunting and streamers and balloons galore. There will be a marching band, and kids on tricycles, and people riding in classic convertibles throwing candy. Everyone will cheer. Then my family will go to the synagogue picnic, where little kids will splash in a kiddie pool, and adults will grill hot dogs and hamburgers, and we'll eat watermelon and popsicles. Then, after the kids are put to bed, we'll sit on our deck and watch distant fireworks across the valley.
It feels great to celebrate community. But at the end of the day, just as I know that there are other teams in the NFL besides the Packers for whom one might reasonably root, I know that my community -- this nation -- isn't the only wonderful one in the world. I know that our customs and contexts aren't the only way to live. (They're not even the only good way to live. Those who've been fortunate enough to live in, or even to visit, more than one country get a sense for how norms and customs differ, without any one set being the "right" ones -- that's part of why travel is so wonderfully broadening.) And that's okay. I don't need my country to be the "best place on earth" -- I just need it to be the best version of itself that it can be.
I want to live in an America which lives up to the ideals I hold dear. Some of those ideals were built into the fabric of its founding (equality, rights, liberty and justice for all.) Others have arisen in recent decades as humanity as a whole has become more enlightened (equal rights for women and for people of all races, equal marriage rights, equal rights for GLBTQIA folks, and so on.) When I think about the positive valances of patriotism, I think of those ideals. I think of times when I've felt hope that this country could be a better place, a kinder place, a more just and righteous place. That's what I'd like to be cultivating today.
Some months ago a friend and I went to the Williams College Museum of Art to see, among other things, original copies of some of America's founding documents. I felt a frisson of awe looking at that looping old handwriting, the paper so fragile but the words so enduring. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." I admire the idealism and the optimism with which those words are imbued.
Is today a yontif, a holy day, for me? Not exactly. But it is a day for pausing to celebrate where we are, before we pick up our tools again and continue the work of -- in the words of our Constitution's Preamble -- trying to "form a more perfect Union." Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate.
Related: the poem Not There Yet. "When Moshiach comes / everyone will celebrate / interdependence day..."