Politics Monday: How to Celebrate America’s Birthday

In a recent God Squad column, Rabbi Marc Gelman writes about the spiritual meaning of America.

America is a place but more, than that, America is an idea.

Rabbi Marc Gelman, The God Squad

America was an idea

This rings true for me, in part because of my Foreign Service childhood. Although I was born in the States, my parents and I flew to Caracas when I was six months old. For the next 12 years, home was Venezuela, Italy, and Colombia, while America was the idea we represented. While Dad touted the democratic principles of free elections, free press, free assembly, and free speech in his work for the US Information Agency, my sister and I understood that our behavior also reflected back on this mystical place. Chewing gum while out on the street was out. Shaking hands and speaking in the language of the country were in.

A foreigner at home

We moved to the United States when I was entering my teens. I had assumed that it would be the easiest transition yet: after all, we were professional Americans. However, I never felt more foreign. Shaking hands and any language other than English were out, blending was in. Our family split into four unconnected pieces: Dad in the State Department, Mom in the suburbs, my sister and I in our independent orbits. When we returned overseas five years later, we clicked back into place, and America became, once again, the idea.

Patriot throughout

Raised by hard-working midwesterners and informed by their Macalester College liberal arts education, they were partners in representing the best of American values throughout Dad’s Foreign Service career. In retirement, Mom was freed to pursue volunteering in community initiatives in Boston and Cape Cod, and Dad expanded his creative realm to include a memoir of his South Dakota youth and a book on the 1958 Venezuelan revolution.

I’ve now lived in the United States for all but those initial 12 years, and I modeled my adult life on my parents’ values with a government career of my own and community service commitments while I lived in New York, and completing a Foreign Service memoir, Embassy KId, which is being considered for publication.

When he died in 2006, my sister wrote that Dad, who lived the American dream, embodied many of our country’s ideals.

He cared deeply about this country, valued informed civil discourse and believed that our best institutions and values — from the freedom of our press to the idea of a public library — were the thing that would win the hearts and minds of those who may not understand us. Cultural exchange and understanding was Dad’s life work. May this continue.

Susan Robb Amerson Hartnett

Amen, sister. Amen.

Bunting and palm trees mark the Fourth of July in South Florida
Bunting and palm trees mark the Fourth of July in my South Florida neighborhood.

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