Freedom, history, and fireworks

Freedom, history, and fireworks

Like any celebration of history, the Fourth of July is about the past, the present, and the future.

In our increasingly at-each-other’s-throats world, no doubt the Fourth looks radically different depending on the viewer’s lens; if you look at it through a blue filter, say, or a red one, then the red or the blue gets screened out. We see what we want to see.

But still, the Fourth of July is about the Declaration of Independence, that gloriously written ode to freedom, even if is more aspirational than reportorial. And even though much of it, directed as it is against the British monarchy, is no longer relevant. (Sorry, Charlie….)

We Jews have a long stake in this country — in its past, its present, and its future.

We’ve been here a very long time.

In February, I wrote a story about an old South Jersey family, the Coryells, whose mysterious progenitor turned out to have been Abraham Coriell, a Jersey-based scion of the Sephardic Portugal- and then Amsterdam-based Curiel family. (Spelling of names migrates along with the families who carry them.)

Over the years, we’ve written stories ourselves, and run them from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and other news services, about people who live in the southwestern United States, are firm in their identities as Christians, and then discover that they’re descended from Jews.

This week, we have a story that touches on Jews who fought in the United States’ earliest wars, as well as more recent history, in Essex and Union counties.

I’ve been thinking about the resources in the archives of the New Jersey Historical Society in Whippany. Although most of it covers the 19th and 20th centuries, and moves into the beginning of this one, there is a legal document, from 1751; one of the parties, Hayman Levy, is Jewish, and it’s just plain normal. (And the handwriting is spectacular.)

What all this says is that we Jews are part of what used to be called the American mosaic; we’re neither more nor less American than any other citizen. Our roots go way back, but that doesn’t matter. Once you’re an American, you’re an American.

This Fourth of July, the stakes seem very real.

We see the dangers of divisiveness. We feel the levels of hatred for each other rise. It’s terrifying.

We watch what’s going on in Ukraine and now in Russia with horror. It’s like a nightmare version of the “Road Not Taken,” as if one of the paths that snowy night had been toward fascism and totalitarianism instead of democracy. All of us whose ancestors left there are so very lucky.

But now it’s the Fourth of July; hours and hours of sunlight, of family and friends and barbecues, masks and social distancing a foggy memory by now, and then the glorious explosions of fireworks. Maybe it can signal not more hatred but a new birth of freedom.

We wish all our readers a glorious Fourth.


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