The mother of exiles

Close up of the statue of liberty, New York City (iStock)
Close up of the statue of liberty, New York City (iStock)

This will be a different Fourth of July for me. I think that’ll be true for many of us.

Until this year, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July both have been major sources of pride. Thanksgiving, in the cold dark cusp-of-winter autumn, is about family; the golden-orange food — turkey and sweet potatoes, for the more prosaic among us — glowed with comfort. (No comfort for the turkey, I know…)

And the Fourth of July, with its green grass and green leaves and blue skies and barbecued food, with its velvet darkness and glorious, noisy, sky-streaking fireworks, always has been exciting and deeply moving. The words behind it — Thomas Jefferson’s elegant, heartfelt, revolutionary words — were so powerful.

I always have felt so proud to be an American.

Last year, my husband and I went to the Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene, housed way downtown in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, to see “Amerike — The Golden Land.” I walked downtown by the wide sparkling Hudson River alone (of the two of us, I’m the walker, he’s not), passing Fourth of July revelers, Americans of all backgrounds, of all colors; in all sorts of clothing and costumes; of all ages, from babies decked out in tiny little American-flag baseball hats to little girls wearing sparkly red-white-and-blue tutus to teenagers wearing whatever it is that they call those things they were barely wearing to parents to grandparents to the oldest people, many of them, too, in the day’s red white and blue.

When we met at the museum, we saw the Statute of Liberty, holding her torch up high as she has done since 1886.

I know that that torch and that statue and that Lady Liberty are what many — most? — of our parents or grandparents or great grandparents saw as they came into the harbor. It had been a harrowing trip for most of them — just trying to imagine what steerage, with its lack of air and lack of light and stench — would have felt like makes my stomach churn. But they made it, and if they weren’t turned back by the doctor who checked them for illness, they’d be in.

It’s a vast country, these United States, and there was room for them.

This year, it doesn’t feel the same. The same Lady Liberty is holding up the same torch over the same country, but the welcome has soured.

We know that there are more people who want to come to this country than even its vast empty spaces can hold. We know that there have to be rules. We know that there must be a process. But we know that caging children, separating families, turning away asylum seekers with their pleas unheard, is not the American way. We know that banning people from this country for the crime of coming from predominantly Muslim countries is not the American way. It is, at any rate, not the way of the America I know and love.

We at the Jewish Standard very much hope that the spirit of this great country returns, that the hate and division somehow go away, and that love and pride reassert themselves.

This year, the words at the base of the Statute of Liberty are echoing and clashing in my head. Those words, of course, are the sonnet called “The New Colossus,” which were written by an American Jew, Emma Lazarus. I take heart from them, and I hope you do too.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We wish all our readers a glorious Fourth.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)