Cawker City, Kan. claims the world’s biggest ball of twine. Kenosha, Wisc. is home to an actual cheese castle. And in Leicester, Vt., you’ll spot a statue of a giant gorilla holding a Volkswagen Beetle.
Only in America.
My grandmother, who immigrated to the States from Russia as a little girl, once told me that before she came to this country, she had envisioned America as a land paved with gold. Not sure these quirky landmarks are quite what she had in mind, but I’m sure if she’d lived to see the Beetle-wielding gorilla, it would have made her smile.
So many of our grandparents sought to find a better life in the United States where they could live freely and practice Judaism without fear of persecution. And that’s just what they found.
Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I recognize that the United States has a truckload of problems, but I thank God every day that I get to call America my hometown, where I am free to live as a Jewish American.
Today, 350 years after the first Jews settled in America, we encounter Jewish language, culture, food, humor, and sensibility at every turn.
The very words that have greeted generations of immigrants, like my grandma, to the shores of this country, displayed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, were written by the Sephardic Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It was composer Irving Berlin, a Belarussian Jewish immigrant, who wrote the iconic American song, “God Bless America.”
And the list goes on and on.
From sea to shining sea, Jews have helped shape this country of hope and promise.
Our ubiquity was front and center at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May, when Arvind Mahankali, a Queens, N.Y. Indian-American eighth grader, won the bee after spelling correctly the word “knaidel,”—the Yiddish term for matzoh ball. He may as well have spelled “apple pie” because there’s something so American about an Indian-American boy spelling a Yiddish word—and correctly! (Or at least according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the spelling is correct.)
As we celebrate our country’s birthday this month, let’s also celebrate living Jewishly in the USA. Let’s hit the road and take a tour of five American cities, some a bit off the beaten path, where you’ll encounter both tourist hot spots and lesser-known Jewish destinations.
1. Charleston, South Carolina
If you’re in the area, swing by Fort Sumter, a sea fort located in Charleston Harbor, S.C., best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, launching the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861.
While you’re in Charleston, visit Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the fourth-oldest Jewish synagogue in the continental United States, founded in 1749.
2. Seattle, Washington
If you make your way to the Pacific Northwest, Pike’s Place Market in Seattle is a must-see. This farmers market, also home to the first-ever Starbucks, serves up produce, cheese, flowers and, of course, fish (famously tossed by the fishmongers) all year round.
While Pike’s Place is well known, most people don’t know that the market has a rich relationship with Seattle’s large Sephardic community, as many of the early peddlers and fishmongers transferred their skills from Greece and Turkey to the Seattle market.
Fun fact: Just outside the University of Washington, the city boasts the only kosher Einstein Bros. Bagels in the country.
3. Jackson, Mississippi
Visit African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers’ home. Evers, who was assassinated in 1963, fought to overturn segregation at the University of Miss.
Then, drop by the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience, founded by Macy B. Hart. Growing up in Winona, Miss., Hart was a member of the only Jewish family in town. Early on Sunday mornings, his father would drive Hart and his siblings 160 miles to the nearest Hebrew School. When Hart grew up, he created his Museum located in Jackson. For more than two decades, the museum—which later expanded into the Goldring Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life—has documented and preserved the historical legacy of Southern Jews.
4. Los Angeles, California
While in La La Land, stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame to gaze at the stars—including oh so many Jewish members of the tribe in Hollywood.
Then, head for a bite at The Milky Way, the kosher dairy restaurant run by movie mogul Steven Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, a lovable ball of energy.
5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is home to the Liberty Bell, one of the most iconic symbols of our American freedom. The famed bell, which would alert citizens and politicians of announcements, originally cracked when first rung after its arrival to the city.
Just across Independence Mall, visit the new National Museum of American Jewish History, which offers experiences that explore and celebrate the history of Jews in America. The museum strives to connect Jews more closely to their heritage and inspire people of all backgrounds with an appreciation of the American Jewish experience.
Visit chasingdreamsbaseball.tumblr.com to learn how to contribute memorabilia to an upcoming baseball exhibition at the museum.
Happy birthday, America!