I was born in 1968, ten days before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., two months before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and at the height of the Vietnam War and all its controversy. My first political memory is of telling my mother, “Nixon is the president” and her correcting me with, “Now Ford is the president.”
The America I grew up in was one of cynicism and disunity. Loyalty to America was not something I though about much while growing up, nor did the people I knew. Patriotism wasn’t cool, not for politically-minded teens of the 80’s who identified with the rebels of the 60’s. For the rest, the majority, I think apathy was the dominant feeling. Most of my peers were excited about making money, but I don’t think that was out of any deep appreciation for America and its ideals.
It was in the summer after my freshman year of college that I encountered a motto that became the dominating theme of my life for the succeeding years, if not until the present. It was a saying on somebody’s T-shirt: “Spirituality is the highest form of political activism.” That sent me on an intense and sometimes painful search which led me right back to my own backyard. Like Dorothy’s return to Kansas, a girl from a liberal Jewish New York family returned to her roots; I am a Hasidic Jew today. I wear a wig and long sleeves and skirts even on the hottest days of summer. When I ride the New York City subways, I usually have eyes in my prayer book.
That’s what I looked like on the morning of September 11, 2001 at about 10:00 am. The first tower had already fallen. I could not believe my eyes as I looked at the solitary tower from my elevated train station. Fifteen minutes later, as the train crossed over the Gowanus Canal, I heard a terrible gasp from all the passengers. I don’t know what they saw. Perhaps it was the second tower falling. Perhaps it was the billowing cloud of ash and debris that enveloped us when all train service stopped and we each made our way back home. Whatever it was, everyone on that train got up to see it, but I thought it was more important to keep my eyes – and heart – in my prayer book.
It seems a bit uncanny to me now, but a few weeks before September 11, I had a profound insight than increased my own sense of patriotism dramatically. My husband and I were listening to a radio show called “The Golden Age of Radio” which was airing one of their frequent features, World War II propaganda. They are presented as radio dramas, and are clearly one-sided, but they give you some sense of the mindset of the people in that era.
The show that evening was a rebroadcast of a 1940’s show that was a documentary about Nazi propaganda. Mainly, it was a warning about the danger of rumors. Just as the Fifth Column caused the defeat of France, this wartime show warned that America too could be full of Nazi-sympathizers whose aim was to demoralize other Americans by speaking negatively. The show conveyed to me the importance of loyalty to the United States, which, as I said above, was never a big part of my value system. I have always thought of World War II from the Jewish perspective, not as an American. It was staggering thought that there could be American citizens actually aligned with and working for the Nazis. Whose loyalty could be so skewed?
The show made it clear that in wartime, unity is all-important. The famous photo of American civilians celebrating in the streets on V-Day flashed through my mind. I could remember no time in my life like that, with that degree of national unity. The closest thing to it in my memory was the resolution of the hostage crisis.
On that summer evening in 2001, America was not yet at war, and I could not imagine it being at war. But the situation in Israel had been as volatile as it is now, and my thoughts turned there. Religious Jews understand the strife in the political state of Israel to be symbolic of a much deeper crisis which exists on a spiritual plane. It is written that the sin that keeps us in exile is hatred amongst ourselves, in other words, our lack of unity. And what is the parallel to the Fifth Column, the rumors which caused France to fall to Germany? Lashon HaRa or gossip. If we speak negatively about each other, we undermine our own unity, and cause ourselves to lose both spiritual and political wars.
Speech is powerful and should be used wisely. Freedom of speech is one of the main freedoms we enjoy as Americans, and the purpose of this essay is most decidedly NOT to discourage it. In Jewish Law, when there is a need for criticism, there are specific rules to follow, all of which are designed to correct the behavior while maintaining the person’s dignity. It is the only way for criticism to be truly constructive. And so, if someone feels America must be criticized, that criticsm should be in the spirit of building up and not tearing down.
Fundamentally, we have much to be grateful for in America. There are some serious mistakes in its history – the framers of the Constitution were themselves slave owners, although I do think the Constitution is the greatest set of secular laws ever written. As a religious Jew, I am especially grateful for the freedom of religion it guarantees me. That is an anomaly in the history of our exile, although there were times and places in which Jews enjoyed religious tolerance. One thing I do know: the
terrorists who attacked my birthplace and home on September 11 last year would not allow my children with their yarmulkes and sidelocks to live the carefree lives all children deserve. But America guarantees that they can, and that, says this pacificst, is worth defending.
And so I would like to conclude with my favorite and fairly unknown verse of “America the Beautiful”:
Oh beautiful for pilgrim’s feet
whose firm impassioned stress
a thoroughfare for freedom beat
across the wilderness.
G-d mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thine soul
Thine liberty in law.