When I was a child, before my family imploded, my father used to take us for a walk on the 4th and retell the story of the Revolution. We would shiver with the soldiers in Valley Forge, and celebrate the crossing of the Delaware. At home we would read the Declaration of Independence, make ice cream in a hand-cranked freezer that my mother’s grandmother had used when her husband returned to Illinois from his service in the Civil War. We’d finish the evening with fireworks in our small-town back yard.
We knew another part of the story, too. My father’s mother crossed the Atlantic alone at fourteen, around 1908. Her father, my great-grandfather, had been murdered in a pogrom near Vilna–a mob broke into the house and shot him in front of his wife and children. The mob then paraded through Vilna singing “Te Deum,” thanking God for the death of another Jew. My granny, the oldest of eight children, was at risk; her mother shipped her to the New World. As she sailed into New York Harbor, under the outstretched arm of the lady with the lamp, she was lonely, scared, but safe. Never again would her life be in danger because of her religion.
My granny never saw her mother or most of her siblings again. Two sisters joined her in New York in 1920, but by 1936, our borders were closed. Jews and others whom Hitler persecuted before war began had no place to turn. We even sent back a shipload of children, Jewish refugees from Europe, before the war began outright. My great-grandmother, her other five children, and their children, were murdered in the forests outside Vilna in 1942, down to the smallest baby in arms.
On this Fourth of July, as on many, my heart is pulled in many directions. I have a wistful nostalgia for our small-town Fourth, the parade, the walk and history with my dad, the ice cream, the friends who came over to enjoy it with us. I grieve for all those turned away from our borders.
As women make the perilous journey to this country, traveling up from Guatemala through Mexico to our hostile borders, their danger of rape is so high that the jefes who extort money to shepherd people through the deserts force women to take contraceptives so that their rapes don’t end in pregnancies. We make the wall high, we scream hysterically, we demonize, but even today, as our roads crumble and our schools fail, people still want to come. They can help us be a better country, but we are like the old lady and the onion in Russian folklore:
A woman who’s lived a bitter and angry life dies and goes to hell. She screams up at St Peter so loudly that he finally pushes open the gates of heaven and says, “Did you ever do one decent thing in your life?” It takes her a few millennia in torment to remember one good deed, but she finally says, “Yes, I once gave an onion to a beggar.” Peter holds out an onion with very long roots. He tells her to hold the root and he will pull her up. The woman seizes the end of the long root and Peter begins to lift her from hell. The other tormented souls see her rise and grab her legs and soon a whole chain of damned is rising with her. The woman is furious–they’ll pull her down. She kicks so hard that the people holding her legs fall off. At which point, Peter drops the onion and she falls back into the pit with the rest.
Anti-immigrant fervor is not new in this country. Anti-Irish mobs attacked incoming Irish in the 1840’s and ’50’s. In the 1884 election, the Republican Party claimed that big-city Irish Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” Italians came in for their share of ethnic and racial furies, and so it has continued to this day.
But we all came from somewhere else, most by choice, seeking freedom or a new chance, African-Americans against their will, but still wanting and deserving freedom and a new chance.
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.
I wonder if that phrase underlies the Supremes recent decisions against women. Justice Scalia said in a speech two years ago that the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the laws, doesn’t apply to women. I wonder if the Supremes, the five Catholic men who would have been hounded and pilloried 125 years ago, don’t believe in their heart of hearts that our Constitution exists only for men.
All I can do on this Fourth is pledge my life, my fortune and my sacred honor to make this a country of equal protection under the laws for everyone, female as well as male, Hispanic as well as Irish, Italian, Anglo, Black. It’s a long road ahead, and I often feel such despair that I want to turn away from it, but the thought of my granny and others like her gives me strength for the journey.