The 4th of July is a uniquely American holiday. Its images of red, white, and blue are etched into our memories. July 4th is camping trips and barbeques, hot dogs and slices of fresh watermelon, with juice running down our chins, and of course loud, colorful fireworks lighting up the sky, commemorating the battles we fought for our freedom.
But for me, the 4th of July has another meaning, and an interesting bit of our family history, one that really commemorates the importance and true meaning of this great holiday.
The 4 of July is my great-grandmothers birthday. Well actually we don’t know when her birthday was, but we celebrated Grandma-Ray’s birthday on July 4th because that’s what it said on her immigration papers. My great-grandmother immigrated here as a young child from Russia. According to the story my mother told me, she didn’t speak English, and as she arrived on Ellis Island, along with ‘Cousin Essie’ the officer at Ellis Island asked about her birthday, but without any papers he simply assigned a birthday. To Cousin Essie he gave Saint Patrick’s Day and to Grandma Ray he gave the 4th of July. I’m sure he probably chose that date simply for convenience, but for my great-grandmother that date was especially poetic, she travelled across the world as a young child, to escape violence and persecution against her people and seek a better life here in America.
From what I have gathered through family stories and some research on genealogy websites, my great-grandmother was born just outside Warsaw, Russia, Poland did not exist at the time and the area of Poland was part of the Russian Empire. She was born sometime between 1885-1889 - there are several dates listed so it’s hard to know for sure.
Grandma Ray and my great-uncle
There was a great deal of violence against the Jewish people during that period of history. If you have ever watched the play or movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Tevya and his daughters, you might remember the term ‘pogrom’ that Tevya used to describe the violence. The term "pogrom" means large-scale, targeted, and repeated anti-Jewish rioting.
Two million Jews fled the Russian Empire between 1880 and 1914, with many going to the United Kingdom and United States. My great-grandmother was one of the Jews who fled that violence and came to the United States. I can’t help but wonder what she felt as her boat sailed into New York and passed the statue of Liberty.
Grandma Ray and my brother
I was very young when Grandma Ray died, so I never got the chance to ask her what she was thinking or feeling as she arrived in America. I do remember having a big party on the 4th of July and my great-grandmother was there. We had a big cake, with 4th of July sparklers on it. I didn’t realize it back then, but as I look back on it now, I think celebrating Grandma-Ray’s birthday on the 4th of July was perfect, she understood the true meaning of this holiday, and for her, this country really was the land of freedom.