Jewish Identity and the Fourth of July

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How the Fourth of July brought me closer to my Jewish identity and changed my understanding of America

We were mostly white high society kids in a racially segregated city, witnessing lavish displays of patriotism from privileged vantage points. In Washington, D.C., where I was born and raised, we rarely stayed in town for the summer. But when we did, on the Fourth of July we would go to a friend’s father’s office downtown before watching the wild display of fireworks. The office had wall-to-wall windows and we peered out at the parade from three stories above the streets and ate finger foods passed around by mostly black waiters.

I remember later joining the masses, spreading a blanket out on the National Mall. The neighborhood kids and I would lie down and watch the massive display of light. There were black kids in our neighborhood, and Iranian kids, but it was mostly just me and other white people on the Fourth of July. It didn’t matter that I was Jewish, or that my friend with the law office Dad was half Mexican; we all just passed and paraded as white.

In my mid-twenties, no longer in Washington, I discovered a deepening of my Jewish identity. While pursuing an MFA in Writing at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, I studied Jewish mysticism and I found new entry points to the dry Conservative Judaism of my childhood.  That was also the year I did research on my family’s arrival in America. I began to discover the depth of residual pain from World War II; the way marks of genocide and the systematic omission of more than half of my family had laced our affluent and seemingly perfect lives.

At this time I began to loathe the 4th and other national holidays that required feeling a sense of belonging in a landscape of American patriotism. I resented being asked to sit at the foot of fireworks and proclaim their glory; not because I wasn’t proud of the American fight for independence, and not because I didn’t know how to have fun or celebrate, but because I began to better understand group mentality, the formation of white supremacy, and the different mechanisms meant to disembody Jewish communities throughout history.

That was when fireworks began to really irk me.

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SOURCE: Tablet Magazine
Merissa Nathan Gerson

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