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Lighting a Jewish fuse on the Fourth
June 24th, 2009
Captain America stamp, 2006.
Los Angeles (JTA) — Red, white and bluish, and Jewish, the Fourth of July this year falls on Shabbat.
Whether you spend the day in synagogue, at the park, with your feet up on a recliner or barbecuing in the yard, you can bring a Jewish spark or two to the day.
We know the Jewish words of independence and freedom are inscribed all about us, notably the inscription from Leviticus on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” and Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses …”
But what of the words of Jewish composer Randy Newman or Jewish Marvel comic book writer Joe Simon? Where is their patriotic prose and poesy? What are their takes on America?
On this day of national unity, what does the siddur have to say about blessing our government? Are there Jewish sacrifices for democracy that have been overlooked? Based on our tradition, are there new opportunities to assure that more people benefit from our union?
Here are eight Jewish connections to our national day of independence. Think about them to light a Jewish fuse this Fourth.
1. Haym Solomon (1740-1785) a Philadelphia Jew, son of a Polish rabbi and a broker, helped finance the Revolutionary War and supported Washington’s army through the sale of Bills of Exchange. He also extended interest-free personal loans to members of Congress, including James Madison.
2. Captain America, the red, white and blue Marvel comic book hero, was created by two Jews, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. During World War II this super patriot, dressed in the elements of a U.S. flag and wielding a shield that can be thrown as a weapon, stands with the Allies in battling the Nazis.
3. A sky full of colored sparks: Are they simply Fourth of July pyrotechnics, or can they be bright reminders of kabbalistic thought? As things are popping around and above, why not let the sparks lift you to the world of the Zohar and its view of the divine sparks that need to be gathered in order to create tikkun olam, or repair of the world.
4. We all know that Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” Randy Newman wrote the satirical “Follow the Flag,” as well as “Political Science,” a song in which America drops the “Big One” on just about everyone.
5. To celebrate this day of freedom, think about wearing a sweatshop-free T-shirt. Jews have a history of working in sweatshops; can’t we direct our clothing expenditures elsewhere? Manufacturers such as American Apparel, whose sometimes outrageous CEO Dov Charney is Jewish, pay their workers a living wage. Also, the Progressive Jewish Alliance promotes sweatshop-free garments through a Kosher Clothes campaign in schools, and publishes “No Shvitz: Your One-Stop Guide to Fighting Sweatshops.”
6. Many siddurim include a prayer for the government or country based on the prophet Jeremiah’s “seek the welfare of the city where I have caused you to be exiled,” as well as the Pirkei Avot’s advice to “pray for the welfare of the government.” A version in Siddur Sim Shalom, based on a text by Louis Ginzberg, reads in part, “Teach them insights for your Torah that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.” Amen to that.
7. Where does that nice cold slice of July 4th watermelon come from? Just think, in Israel from the time of the Ottoman Empire until now, growing watermelons has been an important enterprise. Today, including a seedless variety, watermelons are grown primarily for seeds for export.
8. Eighteen Jews are among the 3,400 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for military service. The most recent, Tibor Rubin, with whom I spoke recently, received the honor in 1999 for courageous service during the Korean War. Born in Hungary, and a Holocaust survivor, Rubin came to New York and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“In Korea,” he said, “an anti-Semitic sergeant made me a hero.”
The sergeant sent the 5-foot-7, 135-pound Rubin on dangerous rear-guard missions, where he was wounded several times, receiving two Purple Hearts.
Though recommended for the Medal of Honor by two superior officers, the anti-Semitic sergeant never did the paperwork. Later in the war, Rubin was captured and repeatedly risked his life by sneaking out of camp to steal food to bring back for his fellow POWs.
Years after the war he was still without Medal of Honor salute for his valor. It was only after several Army buddies protested and elected officials intervened, as well as a petition signed by 42,000 Jewish war veterans, that the Pentagon belatedly awarded Rubin the medal. In his 80s now, he’s not bitter about his earlier treatment. Rubin speaks across the country, wanting Americans to remember that in times of war, “Jews were there, too.”
Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.