OUR CONSTITUTIONAL RELIGION

Feeling Deeply, Proudly American in a Time of Tragedy

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Confronted by unspeakable barbarism, one's own words by definition fall short. Profound thoughts elusive, I have spent much of the past 13 days recalling something intimate and interior: those times when I have felt the most deeply American.

The first time I thought of myself as an American was in 1965. I was 9 years old. It was October and, like many in my neighborhood, I was celebrating two things: the Jewish high holy days and the World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers. I (and some of my pals) had divided loyalties. We were American League fans, but also wanted baseball's best pitcher, Sandy Koufax, to show the nation what a Jew could do.

Just before the opening game, Koufax, famously but quietly, said he would not pitch as scheduled because it was on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Engulfed by a somber, adult congregation, all of whose lives had been defined by a Holocaust that had destroyed their families or prompted their escape from Europe, I thought: This is a country where you could tell everyone you were Jewish. Not only was it not embarrassing, it was cool.

The second time was on a post-college trip abroad. I'd filled a backpack, flown to London and, many buses, trains and boats later, parked myself at a youth hostel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. I'd found Israel unexpectedly unsettling; my equilibrium had been upset not just by the checkpoints, at which soldiers boarded buses to inspect the papers of Arabic-looking passengers, but by the nation's Sabbath shutdown. I vented my unease to two Britons. They waved away my insularity.

'It's because you're American'
"It's because you're American," one said. "You separate church and state. The Constitution is your real religion. In England, this is quite natural. Even though we're Church of England, we feel at home here."

The third time was in April 1993 when my maternal grandmother, Freda Fives, died, and I set about preparing a memorial to present at her funeral. A few years earlier, I had taped several hours of her memories. As we talked then about the period, exactly 70 years before, when her family fled the Russian village of Sobilivka, my mind kept wandering to the story of Moses, as told in Exodus. Believing himself an Egyptian, Moses nevertheless reacted in fury when he saw an overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the man and fled for his life to the land of Midian, where he married a local woman. Yet he continued to wander.

"I have been," Moses said, "a stranger in a strange land."

I hadn't listened to the taped history of my grandmother's own wanderings until I learned of her passing. After the call, through tears, I did so. "It's like a dream, a fog," she said several times, as she recalled one day of great screams in her town: "Oligontz!" -- hooligans, murderers, killing her neighbors. Her father Chaim paid a smuggler who led them to Romania, to Constantinople, to Athens, where eventually the family boarded a boat for America.

Here, Chaim's sister Udel, restyled Adele, took in Chaim and his family. They prospered. Seven decades later, as I surveyed the descendants, there were among them engineers, hairdressers, doctors, salesmen, photographers and executives. And I realized, that day my grandmother died, that we were no longer strangers in a strange land.

Private belief, public ideals
These memories are deeply personal. I know they appear to bind my nationality to my religion. But my point actually is broader, and certainly more ecumenical: From childhood on, Americanism to me meant there was absolutely no conflict between my private beliefs and our public ideals. That is how I have learned to interpret the words and phrases -- democracy, liberty, freedom, e pluribus unum, don't tread on me -- that we use to summarize our national creed.

On Sept. 11, knowing people are still dying for our constitutional religion, I again felt very, and proudly, American indeed.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

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