Throughout my entire life I never truly felt “American.” Yes, I grew up here, in suburbia with a stay-at-home mom and a father who came home at 5:30 PM to four screaming kids and dinner on the table. We had two dogs, a big backyard and vacationed at Disney frequently, but I still never felt like this country was mine.
Even in our small midwest community, home to maybe 10 Jews, we were always different. Unlike the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys and girls running around whose parents knew nothing of where they once came from, like how their families immigrated to America. Every time we would see my paternal grandparents they would remind us of the shtetl life, fleeing Poland and Lithuania.
While most kids BBQ’d and went to the pool on Memorial Day, we were busy placing Stars of David on the Jewish veterans graves. Once again, being different from my American peers.
For me, I did not identify as a Jewish-American. I was simply Jewish.
Truthfully, I had no idea what it was like to “be American.” Sure, valuing freedom and democracy was important, but those values stemmed from my Jewish education. My parents are not religious Jews, but the main reason they sent us to Hebrew school was to learn Jewish values, like Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah.
If you have read previous blogs of mine you will remember my mother converted to Judaism, which means half of my family is American. However, unlike Jews who cannot forget anything and whose religion is based on the history of our people, “next year in Jerusalem,” like we’ve been saying this for 2,000 years, it’s impossible to forget where we came from.
But, my American grandparents, like many American grandparents I suppose, barely spoke about where they came from or where their families were before they got to America. They were American and that’s all that mattered.
Here I will begin my story why this fourth of July, I actually feel American - or at least I can appreciate the fireworks that will light up the sky.
The whole reason why I feel “American” now stems from a DNA test and the fact that I couldn’t research my father’s side of the family anymore because the Holocaust wiped everyone out.
A few months ago I made every grandparent of mine spit into an Ancestry.com DNA test tube. When the results came in I logged on to the website eager to learn more. It was a deep deep hole that I fell into and frankly haven’t come out of since.
After pulling an all nighter and researching record after record, I discovered my mother’s side of the family came to the US in the 1400’s. America wasn’t even a country then. In fact, much of my maternal side came to the US fleeing religious persecution. Records show that they were of the Lutheran faith and fleeing different parts of Western Europe for religious freedom.
It’s shocking to know that both sides of my family fled their homelands for the same reason, the opportunity to practice their beliefs freely.
This really sunk into me. I learned that from the time my mother’s family got off the boat in Philadelphia, they fought in each war, from the American Revolutionary War to the War of 1812 and settled some of the first land in the midwest. This was all to ensure that they were living in a free land with equal rights and opportunities.
They came here, married people from all different backgrounds, including Native Americans, and created vibrant communities and built their lives from practically nothing. It’s a story worth commemorating.
As someone who solely identifies as Jewish and has never bothered to vote in this country because honestly I don’t even feel it’s mine, what I learned about my mother’s family completely changed my outlook. (And now I’m going to vote!)
For the first time in my life I can appreciate being “American.” So when the sky this Fourth of July is full of color, I will remember where I came from and the values both sides of my family have fought to keep.