Missing July 4th in America

None of my forefathers were pilgrims, but they escaped to the land that "let freedom ring." Does anyone still sing "My country tis of thee?"

Stephen M. Flatow ,

Pilgrims
Pilgrims
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The writer and his wife recently made aliya.

One of the hallmarks of a New York City public school education in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond was the requirement that boys have a handkerchief. We didn’t know it at the time, but for those of us who wore it folded in our shirt front pocket for the teacher to see, we were emulating the fashionable pocket square. It was so engrained in us that to this day, 65 plus years after entering kindergarten at PS 87, Middle Village, Queens, I still carry and use, to the turned up noses of my grandchildren, a handkerchief.

Another hallmark was the weekly assembly in the school auditorium. It was a Wednesday morning ritual and I was a proud sixth-grader when I put on the flag carrier strap and marched the flag onto the auditorium stage. When we were done with the Pledge of Allegiance and singing of the Star-Spangled Banner (verses one and four), I put the flag into its holder on the stage and returned to my seat.

There would be a series of announcements from the school principal and then a program. Perhaps it would be a play put on by one of the classes, but there was always singing.

We would sing American folk songs. Songs like “My Darling Clementine,” (the Rosh Hashanah song, “Dip the Apple in the Honey” uses the tune,) “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” And then there was a patriotic song or two. “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” or “America the Beautiful.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” uses the tune of England’s national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” That’s not really important. What was important was how the lyrics resonated within me, a grandchild of immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, then, and now.

My country, 'tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims' pride,

From ev'ry mountainside

Let freedom ring!

Even as a child, I understood that none of “my fathers died” establishing the United States, nor were we part of the original pilgrims escaping religious prosecution in England. Yet, my grandparents were pilgrims in the modern sense escaping the twin hell that was Czarist Russia and Polish anti-Semitism. And it was them I was singing about.


America needed a Christopher Columbus, a Theodore Roosevelt, and even a Woodrow Wilson, warts and all. America became great because of them, and others like them, but it will not remain great when the monuments to them and others are erased.
What an opportunity they found here. My grandfather with his pushcart selling fruits and vegetables in Brooklyn and then opening a store in bucolic Middle Village. They weren’t rich by any means, but my father told me that they always had food to eat during the Great Depression.

Three sons serving in the US Army during World War II; one of them getting a bullet in the backside during the Battle of the Bulge.

While I write this in Jerusalem, I look at what’s happening in America and feel sad for my other country. Monuments being torn down, municipal names being changed to escape history, educators, writers, and newspaper people being “canceled” for writing things 20 years ago when they were teens or by saying things out loud today that are on so many minds.

Like many others, as events in America appear to be tumbling out of control, I fret for the future of my children and their families. While I was busy spending a fortune on giving my children a yeshiva education, I cannot help but feel that they were shortchanged by that education.

While I raised educated Jews and my children are raising their children as educated Jews, they are woefully ignorant of the political world around them. Sure, the adults have a sense of political right and wrong, but I am not certain how many of them vote.

Neither they nor my grandchildren know that you’re supposed to put your hand on your heart when saying the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the Star-Spangled Banner. They certainly don’t know the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and have never heard Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” (written by another Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin.)

If I were to be flip about it, I’d say “bask in your ignorance.” But I, we, cannot be flip. Some think that everything that America has represented for almost 250 years has been wrong, they are the loudest voices we hear today. But America needed a Christopher Columbus, a Theodore Roosevelt, and even a Woodrow Wilson, warts and all. America became great because of them, and others like them, but it will not remain great when the monuments to them and others are erased from America’s streets, parks, and academic buildings.

The battle for America has begun. I, my children, and grandchildren have to start now to be in that battle. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21, "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either."

Stephen M. Flatow is a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, an attorney in New Jersey and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. His book, “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” is now available on Kindle. He is an oleh chadash making his way through the system.



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