As Jewish as the 4th of July

July 4th fireworks, Washington, D.C., 2009. Courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Tomorrow will be the first 4th of July in 12 years that I won’t be working.  I scarcely know what to do with my day off.  Truth be told, my recent Independence Days have been more of a privilege than “work.”  In addition to responsibility for the large Declaration of Independence reading ceremony on the steps of the National Archives that draws more than 3,000 visitors – it was my job to give the VIP tours of the Declaration and the Constitution.  It always struck me as entirely appropriate that the grandson of immigrants from the shtetl was explaining the history of our national founding to Congressmen, journalists and captains of industry.    The genius of our nation is that those who adopted this homeland had the opportunity to gain equal footing with the biological descendants of those who drafted our Charters of Freedom.

My small service was just one piece of a much larger fabric of citizenship that has woven the Jewish experience into our national life.  In both civil and military roles, Jews have distinguished themselves in advancing and securing American independence and values from the Revolution forward.  In addition to these tangible contributions, we have also played a major part in shaping the icons of American patriotism.

Long before Paul Simon came to “look for America”, Joe Simon created “Captain America”[i] and Irving Berlin blessed America.  Two decades before I worked on the National Archives Experience, executive producer Judy Feiner Chricton created “The American Experience” on PBS.  It is as impossible to separate the Jewish thread from the American weave as to separate the Emma Lazarus poem from the Statue of Liberty.

And nothing is more iconic than our national flag.  I am reminded that there were Jewish soldiers at Fort McHenry when the Star Spangled Banner survived the bombs bursting in air (more on Mendes Cohen in an upcoming blog).

Looking for more Baltimore connections to our flag, I suggested to Rachel Kassman that she make a quick search for July 4 images in our Photo Archives.  Here are two of the images she uncovered.  The first is the Meyerhoffs celebrating the 4th of July.  The back of the photo has the inscription “in America’s year”, which leads us to believe this was taken is 1976. Celebrations of the 4th became a regular part of the calendars of Jewish families, seamlessly joining the cycle stories of more ancient liberations like Hanukah and Pesach.


The second photo is from an event held by “little joe’s” (the Wiesenfeld Co.) at the Howard Hotel on the eve of World War I.  While we are not entirely sure whether the photo is from July 4, it seemed like an image in the spirit of the day.  “Little Joe” Wiesenfeld, as well known for his equestrian and cycling achievements as for his discount sporting goods, seems to embody the fusion of Jewish and American success.


Hope you have an equally fabulous 4th.

Oh, and about that extra day off – it’s actually more of a swap, you can expect to find me at JMM every December 25th!


[i] Look for more about John Simon and other comic book creators in next spring’s special exhibit:  Zap! Pow! Bam!


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