Jewish World Review July 4, 2005 / 27 Sivan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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‘My fellow citizens ’ | Want to feel really great? And be reminded of what makes this country so great?

Attend a naturalization ceremony. When it comes to lifting spirits, it beats an evening of patriotic music from the U.S. Marine Band — which is saying a lot. You'll swell up with pride. You'll rejoice with your new countrymen. And if you're as lucky as I was the other day, you'll get to laugh along with a sweet little lady from Thailand when the clerk tried to pronounce her unpronounceable — for a Westerner — name.

A naturalization ceremony is a kind of baptism, confirmation, wedding, college commencement, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. It's a celebration of both past effort and future promise. It'll remind you that we're still a nation in the making, and still a frontier people.

These new citizens are their families' pioneers. What a privilege to be invited to share their joy and pride, and be the first to address them as "My Fellow Citizens "

As you listen to the roll call of nations from which the new citizens came, you can almost hear that American melting pot, or stew, or slumgullion, or bouillabaisse, or whatever it is, bubbling again, and America being formed anew.

These new Americans have a lot to teach us old ones, beginning with gratitude. Our citizenship isn't as bright and fresh as theirs. And unlike those who had to earn their citizenship, many of us didn't choose to be Americans. For us it is a gift outright, one we received by accident of birth, through no merit of our own, another act of unearned grace. We're tempted to take it for granted.

I cherish an old photograph at home of the passengers aboard the S.S. Manchuria when it arrived at the Port of Boston on Feb. 10, 1921. If you look carefully through all the faces lined up on deck, you'll see a 19-year-old girl, really a woman by then after all she'd gone through, with a round face, snub nose, dark hair drawn severely back, solemn in the photographic fashion of the day.

It's a face indistinguishable from those of millions of others from eastern and southern Europe who flocked to the Golden Land between the 1880s and 1920s. That great wave of immigrants was on a scale comparable perhaps only to today's. And like today's, it was called too big, its people too alien — unassimilable.

And there in the midst of it was my mother, Sarah the daughter of Paesach the miller, from the tiny village of Mordt — well, outside the tiny village of Mordt, actually — somewhere in the middle of Poland. She was a country girl traveling alone to the New World with little more than the clothes on her back.

But she brought with her a great treasure: hope. In a way, that 19-year-old immigrant was already American before she stepped foot on the boat in what was then Danzig, because she was already looking ahead.

My mother's Yiddish was sharp, her English was, well, tentative, and her silence most eloquent of all. And whenever she would hear people blithely criticize America, she would give them what my brother, sister and I came to recognize as The Look.

The message would be unmistakable: What do you know of America who only America know?

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The same look would freeze on her face when she heard some armchair expert speak lightly of poverty or hunger or war in her presence. Having grown up in the midst of the chaos that was the First World War on the eastern front, she did not take such things lightly.

Sometimes, when examining that old photograph, or visiting a national cemetery on Memorial Day, or when I made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg, I've wondered if the determination, the faith and hope, I see in that old photograph of my mother and her shipmates is still alive.

Then I come to a courtroom on an otherwise ordinary Friday morning, look at the rows of faces in all different hues, from all different parts of the world, of all different ages and origins, and hear the Oath of Allegiance intoned in a rich variety of accents and it's clear that the Spirit of Liberty still lives, that America is still America.

It's a grand feeling. And it's available at regularly scheduled ceremonies at a federal courthouse near you.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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