Tuesday, February 18, 2020 -
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Happy birthday America

It was 1984. I was just a little girl visiting my grandmother in Denver, from Israel.

We went to one of my great aunt’s for a July 4th barbecue. Of course, I had never heard of July 4th. But it was such a beautiful spread in an expansive backyard. Jade green grass. Delicious summer BBQ food in abundance. Music. Fireworks. Twilight. The event held that vibe of Old-School Americana.

Then it came time to cut the cake — yes, there was cake; it was a huge rectangle that appeared like a cloud, enveloped in swirls of piped white buttercream and decorated with red and blue accents, reminiscent of the stars and stripes. And there were number candles nestled in the buttercream: a 2, a 1 and a zero — 210.

Everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” I was so confused. A birthday? My great aunt anthropomorphized America, saying it was her birthday too, and talking about America like it was a person.

While her actual words had the tone of expressing something personal, it all felt so removed from me and from what, in contrast to Israel, seemed to have been, so far, impersonal. And, to my young mind, America sounded ancient, which was cool. Two hundred and ten years old!

I was coming from humble Israel. She was a 36 years old. It was a number I could grasp. Like a parent. Israel was around my parents’ age at the time. Celebrating her existence always truly did feel so intimate, so personal. The country was young.

And the way it’s set up with Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day, preceding Israel Independence Day, in tears and with heart wrenching songs on the radio all day, such as “We Hail from The Same Village,” “I promise you, little girl, this will be the final war,” “From the Summit of Mount Scopus” etc., approaching an independence day seemed to come with a price, with a prelude.

Here in America July 4th was all light-hearted and fun. It was detached from anything too serious. There was a party in a backyard and everyone sang Happy Birthday.

I felt like an outsider peeking in on a different culture. On a different emotional temperature. On a place that can have a country’s birthday without first crying.

The fireworks were beautiful. I was mesmerized. It certainly felt special. To this day, I never want to miss the chance to see July Fourth fireworks. Be it over the George Washington Bridge at the Hudson River, or over the Rockies, it is always magic.

Little did I know then that a few short years later we would move to Denver and it would become my family’s new permanent home.

After we had moved back, the house at the end of the block had a slight rise in its front lawn. I remember sitting there quietly with my dad, in the still summer darkness, under their umbrella shaped tree, watching fireworks explode over Lowry Air Force Base.

Since then, I have not been that “outsider” at a July 4th event. I am always up for a picnic. A hike. A barbecue. Why not? Thank G-d for America. G-d bless our America. It’s an opportunity to express that joy and gratitude.

Nothing like a perfect New York or Denver summer night to meet up with friends or family and bring along some cold drinks or wine, sit on the grass and relax into the July 4th fireworks magic.

But the truth is, I was forged in Israel. A part of me to this day remains an outsider on July 4th. Emotionally and intellectually I celebrate it with true gratitude and joy in my heart. America is a home to me, a home that I love. The simplicity of the song “America The Beautiful” always touches me to the core.

But that part of me that was an outsider is always somewhere within me, deep inside.

This year, with the rise of anti-Semitism, and the two attacks on American synagogues, I approach July 4th with my usual appreciation and celebration, but also with a touch of caution and awareness, that America as she is now is a special and precious place — yet one that I can only pray will continue to be the America as we have known it, for many more years to come.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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