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July Fourth—And the Jews

06/29/2017 05:51:23 PM


July 4, 2017
by Rabbi Larry Raphael

I loved this special drash last year from our rabbi emeritus. It captures the essence of our American and Jewish identities on this important day of national celebration. Happy birthday, America! —Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

The celebration of our nation’s founding is July 4 and I share with you a story that demonstrates this kinship between America and its Jews. It comes from a book by Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution,1787-1788, which tells the story of how each of the thirteen colonies voted to approve the constitution, and to join the United States of America.

Ratification was not such a simple matter as you might think it was. Each of the colonies had to hold a special assembly at which they had to vote on whether to join the union or not, and the United States would not come into being until at least nine of the thirteen colonies agreed to join. In each colony there were fierce debates pro and con, and in some cases the vote on whether to join the United States or not was very, very close.

New York was one of the last of the colonies to vote. A special convention was held in Poughkeepsie to decide the question. During the month of July, 1788, two sides (for and against ratification) struggled over whether to join the Union or not. Perhaps if New York had voted not to ratify the constitution it might have made that state a foreign country! Can you imagine the chaos that would have resulted if New York had voted not to ratify?

Pro ratification politicians used all political power they possessed in order to persuade the convention in Poughkeepsie to ratify by having a great parade in New York City. The parade was to have floats, and a marching band, and it was hoped that it would attract an enormous crowd, in order to send a message to the convention that was going on in Poughkeepsie.

The parade was set to be held on July 22nd, 1788. And then, just a few days before the parade was to go on, it was postponed for one day. Why? Further research discovered that the procession has been postponed from the 22nd of July to the 23rd in order to give the Jews the opportunity to join in the festivities, the 22nd being a Jewish holiday.

The holiday was Shivah Asar B’tamuz (the 17th day of the month of Tamuz) on the Jewish calendar! Shivah Asar B’tamuz is the day that marks when the Roman legions breached the walls of Jerusalem. That event led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which is observed on the Ninth Day of Av. It was out of respect for this day that those who wanted New York to join the United States postponed their parade!

Scholars “guestimate” that there were probably no more than twenty or thirty Jewish families in all of New York City at the time. It was not like it is today, when Jews are a powerful political group. This story helps illustrate the uniqueness of America. From its very beginning, this country has been respectful, both of Jews and of Judaism. I can’t imagine any other country in the eighteenth century except America in which such a thing could have happened, and I am grateful to Pauline Maier for having rediscovered this story, from the sources in which it lay hidden and ignored for more than two hundred years.

With that in mind the words of the song: “God Bless America”,  (written by the famous Jewish composer Irving Beillin, whom we know by his other name: Irving Berlin) are most appropriate:

God bless America,
Land that I love,
Stand beside her,
And guide her,
Through the night,
With the light from above.
From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans,
White with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

My best to all for Independence Day.
—Rabbi Larry Raphael

Sat, April 21 2018 6 Iyar 5778