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Becoming an American

Michael Saltz
June 29, 2018 06:37 pm

Grandpa took me on my first trip to Washington, D.C.

It was the spring of 1952 and I had just turned 12. The Korean War was on-going, Truman was still president, Antisemitism was not uncommon in America and Jim Crow laws still ruled the South. Grandpa, with whom I had shoved push pins into a map of Europe hanging on the wall in his office/bedroom to mark the progress of the war in 1944, had decided that he wouldn’t simply leave parents, much less school, to introduce me to his notion of America.

He had come here as a young boy from Russia in 1890 along with his family from Vilna in what’s now an independent Lithuania. He grew up in Manhattan’s lower East Side where his father started a small publishing company while continuing to live the life of a poet, singer and a leading light of the Jewish immigrant community. Not for nothing did his biography call him the “Poet of his People.”

As a young man, Grandpa, too, tried his hand at poetry before exchanging his romantic flowing cape for a life in the law and social service. In 1905 he co-founded the National Desertion Bureau, an organization assisting immigrant women who had been deserted by their husbands and helped write the law creating New York’s Family Court. His wife, the immigrant daughter of another famous Jewish writer and intellect, was a pianist, sculptor, playwright and social activist. She died in 1951, a victim of breast cancer, the year before our trip.

So there we were, Grandpa and me, he a widower of one year and me, a young boy taking his first tentative steps beyond the confines and safety of home and family into the wide, wide world.

We left on the Pennsylvania Railroad from Pennsylvania Station (yes, Virginia, there really was a real Pennsylvania Station and railroad) rolling along the tracks, making our way down the map I had studied in Geography class: Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and all the cities and towns in between and then, finally, Washington, D.C and the majestic Union Station.

Nights we would have dinner with Grandpa’s sister and husband, a Washington builder who kept his revolver, holster and chaps from his days in the Oklahoma oil fields in a trunk, before repairing to the Shoreham Hotel to sleep.

Days, however, belonged to Grandpa’s agenda and we did the tourist thing. We visited the White House and the Capital; we went to see the Supreme Court, and the FBI building, and Arlington Cemetery; we visited the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, and the Washington Monument (we didn’t climb the stairs).

There were three places, though, that were special to Grandpa and the real purpose of the trip: the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the National Archives with its display of America’s founding documents. He read aloud to me the words inscribed on the walls of those memorials, wanting to make sure I heard the words, all of them.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men,” and

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” From the Jefferson Memorial.

For Grandpa, though, nothing was more important than the Lincoln Memorial and his 2nd Inaugural address more than the Gettysburg address. Lincoln clearly stated that slavery was the root cause of the war. “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” And he noted the terrible irony of the war: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

So we talked about the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves and the founding of America and the idea that all men are created equal and that no idea, no religion was automatically superior to any other, that America was unique in the world because it was founded on basis of those ideas.

His lesson must have taken root because not only do I still remember our trip but in all the scores of times I’ve driven past those monuments in the past 66 years, I cannot do so without a quickening of my heart.

Did that visit play a role in the eventual course of my life? So much of who and what we are, what we believe in, what we are prepared to believe in, comes from the accretion of scores, hundreds, thousands of incidents that it’s hard to pinpoint the one time, the Aha! moment. But there was this visit along with dinner table conversations, and the pushing of pins into the map, and the history classes, and the Seders and Thanksgivings, and the books I’ve read, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve experienced, and I don’t know what else, and in the end, through it all, I became an American, a patriot.

If I sometimes get furious at America and find it incomprehensible and willfully blind and sometimes stupid, I also find it majestic and bountiful, always holding out the hope that change for the better is possible if we are willing to make it happen, that it is always we, the people, who ultimately hold the power and responsibility to create our present and our future.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.