With our music teacher, Mrs. Feigenbaum, at the piano playing the melody – the Toreador's Song from the opera "Carmen" – and the lyrics handed out to us on mimeographed pages, my 4th-grade classmates and I practiced one of the songs we were learning for our school's Thanksgiving assembly:
Thanksgiving Day comes once each year
Our president proclaims it far and near.
Thankful for the bounty of our land,
The harvest that makes this nation grand,
Bestowed us from above,
God bless this land,
This precious land we love.
I was a student at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, a Jewish day school where half of the curriculum was devoted to religious studies and the school year conformed to the Jewish calendar. Most of the kids in my class came from Orthodox Jewish homes, and many of us were the children of Eastern European immigrants who spoke Yiddish more fluently than they spoke English.
Yet there we were, kids whose parents may have gotten off the boat only 10 or 15 years earlier and whose family life bore little resemblance to The Patty Duke Show, singing songs about the Mayflower and turkey dinners without a hint of irony. The inculcation of Jewish values and learning was the Hebrew Academy's chief priority, but it was understood that raising kids to be good Jews went hand-in-hand with raising them to be good Americans. Parents and teachers alike took it for granted that the story and traditions of Thanksgiving (or Columbus Day or Washington's Birthday) should be as familiar a part of our cultural identity as the Passover story and its traditions.
I didn't know it at the time, but what my classmates and I were experiencing was the classic model of American assimilation: the process by which immigrants and ethnic minorities, and the children of those immigrants and minorities, had for decades been successfully turned into Americans. In a world filled with ethnic antagonism and religious violence, the United States had found a paradigm for unifying the most ethnically, racially, and religiously varied population on the planet into a relatively tolerant and unified culture.
We rarely reflect on what an astonishing achievement this was. But how many other societies have managed to maintain national cultural unity in the midst of ethnic diversity? Cyprus? Rwanda? Sri Lanka? The former Yugoslavia?