Miriam Feder home


Only in America

“It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
John Adams, in a letter to Abigail, July 3, 1776.

John Adams was off by two days—he thought the holiday ought to be July 2, the date the Second Continental Congress actually voted for independence, but we’ve always celebrated the 4th, the date on the Declaration, as a tribute to this country, summer, hot dogs, balloon buns, bands, fireworks and retail sales. I marched in the Evanston Independence Day parade and I still have the small plastic flag I carried (it’s so hard to march with a cello—not fair.)

But my generation was soon robbed of public notions of patriotism. Songs, parades and the tear-in-the-eye during the National Anthem were taken over by the purveyors of war, guns, flag pins, my-country-right-or-wrong, lies and fear. I had to discover the brilliance of our founding fathers, along with so many things about this country, by traveling outside of it.

I sat with my daughter on the stairs surrounding the statue of Jan Hus in Prague’s Old town square, less than a decade after the Velvet Revolution. In the sea of young German travelers, I opened to my chief source for European history, The Michelin Green Guide, and read aloud. We were looking for painted
buildings along the square to attach to the tales of de-fenestrations.

Suddenly, I could taste the first Amendment. Madison was not just my best-friend’s home street. John Adams was alive in my head, not just my favorite character in the film of 1776. I was so thankful for their courage and craft, their insight and insistence. I tried to impress on my ten year old how amazing and important the foundation of this country is, with tears in my eyes.

Recently, my choral director assigned us God Bless America. There was too much God and too many memories of this number being trotted out as the symbol of the love-it-or-leave-it brigade. It stuck in my throat. So I traveled to the lower east side of my mind and roamed the tenements that grew an Israel Beilin, or Irving Berlin, as he came to be known. I saw my family, both sides, craving this soil and planting their feet and spirits in it, relieved to be free of the persecution and turmoil they faced in Europe. They became Americans with every fiber, pouring sweat, blood and children into her.

When I returned to the risers and opened my mouth to sing, I could hear my Grandmothers refrains—only in America. I could reclaim the song and fill the lyric with the language of my heart—justice and opportunity.