What it Means to Be American: Reflections on Memorial Day

May 26, 2016 by

What it Means to Be American: Reflections on Memorial Day

Francis Salvador was the first Jewish American to die in service to America.  He was the kind of person that Jacob Marcus z”l  would have talked about.  He was born in England to a family that was Spanish and Portuguese.  He left his wife and four children to come to the New World in 1773.  He was the first Jew elected to the Provincial Congress in the colonies, and was an advocate for independence.  He was also a slave-owner.  On July 31, 1776 he was shot in a battle against British loyalists and Cherokees and scalped.  He died at age 29.

Salvador could be described in many ways in our age of identity politics.  He was an immigrant.  A Jew. A revolutionary.  A racist slave-owner.  A Settler.  A politician.  An adventurer.  A businessman.  A father and husband.  A soldier.  He was all of these things, and none of them.

In this moment in our nation’s history that finds our country more bitterly divided than in my lifetime, and almost as divided as it has ever been in our history, it is worthwhile to remember Salvador, and those like him.  The descriptions of those with whom we disagree has degenerated into easy hate-filled epithets but the reality is so much more complex than that.

On Memorial Day, we pause for a moment and to remember those who have given their life for this Republic, and the cost of building and preserving it.  Memorial Day began as a day to decorate the graves of those who died in our Civil War.  It was meant to remember those of the Confederacy as well as the Union. In life, they were native born and immigrant, Irish and English, German and French, Jew and Christian, pro-slave and anti-slave.  Freed slaves and those who had enslaved them.  But in death, they were equal.  It has been this way since this nation was first imagined. In death, they were, ultimately, Americans.

If we could all truly appreciate the significance of this, perhaps our political conversations would be more focused on the issues and less on heaping hate on those who disagree with us.  The ideal of what America means, and what it could be, has inspired men and women to give their lives for 240 years, since the death of Francis Salvador.  For 240 years, America’s sons and daughters have given all for a country governed by law and committed to freedom.  It is up to us to decide whether there will be another 240 years to come.

Rabbi Steven Ballaban serves as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. 

 

1 Comment

  1. Sara Perman

    Very powerful

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