Happy 4th of July! Aside from everyone and their brother lighting off fireworks (people, please, can’t we wait until it’s at least dark and you can see them?), it’s a beautiful day here.
I’m in a particularly ponderous mood today. The 4th of July, as with most holidays, really gained more meaning for me as I got older and truly thought about he significance of this day. What I find myself thinking about most are my great-grandparents, who came to the United States from what is now Poland in the very early 1900s (my other set of great-grandparents were natural-born citizens, and their families had been in the country for quite awhile at this point). I wonder how, or if, they celebrated Independence Day, and what might have been going through their minds. Really, what would July 4, 1912 look like in comparison to July 4, 2012?
If I could speak with my great-grandparents at that time, one hundred years ago, what would I say? I never had the chance to meet them. They were scarcely older than I am now when they came here, with their own children in tow and little to their (soon to be changed) names. What would they want to hear? What would I find most important?
1. The United States is still a pretty great place. I know that America in 1912 was not paved with gold like so many newcomers thought it might be. It was a difficult place where injustices and intolerance ran rampant concerning immigrants. But it was also truly the land of opportunity, where my grandparents were able to settle down, find work, and have more children because they didn’t have to worry about dictators, czars, or tyrants. Today, there are a lot of parallels: the United States isn’t always the shining beacon of hope and justice we want to be; we have serious problems, issues, and areas that desperately need to be addressed. But for me, it has been a fantastic place to grow up, to live, and to experience life, knowing I have so many guaranteed freedoms and opportunities.
2. Grandma Fanny, Grandma Lena, you will be able to vote soon.
Women gained the right to vote in 1919, and were able to exercise their freedom at the polls one year later – only eight years after this hypothetical conversation. I’m not entirely sure why it’s so important for me to tell them this – I just know it is. Perhaps to assure them that their opinion will matter, and will make a difference. Perhaps to encourage them to research and learn and understand the political process, or perhaps even get involved in the suffragist movement. This is something that takes priority in my personal life, and I think particularly important for minorities like women and religious groups. And speaking of minorities…
3. There will come a day where you don’t have to live in the Jewish quarter, work for only Jewish employers, and only marry other Jews. I am fully aware that there are still many, many people in the United States who choose to live this way, and are very happy with their lives. And that’s great! But the key is really choice – you can choose to do all those things, or choose not to. In 1912, it was really expected that people stay within their own little boxes. Today, I live in a mixed religious area, work for a non-religious employer, and am proud to be from an interfaith family.
4. And the most important one of all: thank you. I cannot imagine the hardship, sacrifice, and tenacity it took to leave your home country and set sail for a place you had only heard of, all in hope for a better life for you and yours. My family, their descendants, stand today as living proof that all their work was not in vain. And it makes me think: what can I do in my lifetime that will make my great-grandchildren look back and say thank you?
I hope all of you, whether you’re celebrating the 4th or not, have a wonderful day. I’m going to cap off this deep thinking in true American style: with my family, a swim in the pool, and a cold beer. Happy 4th of July – may it be truly JOYful!
Your Turn: Were your ancestors immigrants to the U.S. or somewhere else? What would you want to say to them?