Perhaps the major reason Jews have been able to keep their national identity alive for 3,000 years, the last 2,000 of which were nearly all spent dispersed among other nations, is ritual. No national or cultural identity can survive without ritual, even if the group remains in its own country.
Americans knew this until the era of anti-wisdom was ushered in by the baby boomer generation in the 1960s and ’70s. We always had national holidays that celebrated something meaningful.
When I was in elementary school, every year we would put on a play about Abraham Lincoln to commemorate Lincoln’s Birthday and a play about George Washington to commemorate Washington’s Birthday. Unfortunately, Congress made a particularly foolish decision to abolish the two greatest presidents’ birthdays as national holidays and substituted the meaningless Presidents Day. Beyond having a three-day weekend and department store sales, the day means nothing.
Columbus Day is rarely celebrated since the European founding of European civilization on American soil is not politically correct.
Christmas has become less nationally meaningful as exemplified by the substitution of “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas.”
Memorial Day should be a solemn day on which Americans take time to honor those Americans who fought and died for America and for liberty. But, again, fewer and fewer Americans visit military cemeteries just as fewer communities have Memorial Day festivities.
We come, finally, to tomorrow, the mother of American holidays, July Fourth, the day America was born. This day has a long history of vibrant and meaningful celebrations. But it, too, is rapidly losing its meaning. For example, look around tomorrow — especially if you live in a large urban area — and see how few homes display the American flag. For most Americans it appears that the Fourth has become merely a day to take off from work and enjoy hot dogs with friends.
Our national holidays were established to commemorate the most significant national events and individuals in our history; they now exist primarily to provide us with a day off. This was reinforced by the nation’s decision to shift some of the holidays to a Monday — thereby losing the meaning of the specific date in order to give us a three-day weekend.
National memory dies without national ritual. And without a national memory, a nation dies. That is the secret at the heart of the Jewish people’s survival that the American people must learn if they are to survive.
When Jews gather at the Passover Seder — and this is the most widely observed Jewish holiday — they recount the exodus from Egypt, an event that occurred 3,200 years ago. We Americans have difficulty keeping alive the memory of events that happened 231 years ago.
How have the Jews accomplished this? By the ritual of the Passover Seder. Jews spend the evening recounting the Exodus from Egypt — and as if it happened to them. In the words of the Passover Haggadah — the Passover Seder book — “every person is obligated to regard himself as if he himself left Egypt.” The story is retold in detail, and it is told as if it happened to those present at the Seder, not only to those who lived it 3,200 years ago.
That has to be the motto of the July Fourth Seder. We all have to retell the story in as much detail as possible and to regard ourselves as if we, no matter when we or our ancestors came to America — were present at the nation’s founding in 1776.
The Seder achieves the feat not only through detailed recitation of the story, but through engaging the interest of the youngest of those at the table (indeed, they are its primary focus), through special food, through song and through relevant prayer. Obviously, just as secular Jews tend to avoid the prayer part of the Haggadah, so, too, secular Americans are free to avoid the prayer part of an American Seder Book.
But someone — or many someones — must come up with a July Fourth Seder. A generation of Americans with little American identity — emanating from little American memory — has already grown into adulthood. The nation whose founders regarded itself as the Second Israel must now learn how to survive from the First.