What America Means to Me

Let me stop you right there because I know what you might be thinking: “How dare you love America today? It’s so racist and homophobic and clearly set up for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer!” And let me make myself clear from the very beginning: I do not condone structures that are woven through the foundation of this country which encourage racism or economic inequality–there is certainly more work we have to do. But, we cannot take for granted that we have the ability to do this work and make these changes! 

Before I get all ooey-gooey about the importance of American patriotism, let me give me you some of my backstory. I am proud to call myself a first-generation Ashkenazi Jewish American, with both sides of my family coming from parts of the former Soviet Union. For me to say that their lives were not easy before immigrating to America would be an understatement. Though my family was not directly persecuted for being Jewish, they knew that practicing any religion was outlawed before the disassemblement of the Soviet Union in 1989. My parents’ nationality was still marked as JEW instead of UKRAINIAN on their passports, even when they knew as little about the Jewish religion as their Christian neighbors. My mom tells me stories about how she and her other Jewish friends were teased and called anti-Semitic slurs at school, how she and her Jewish friends refused to attend school on Hitler’s birthday for fear of another pogrom, and how people were required to change their nationalities from Jewish to a faux identify to secure a chance at getting into medical school.

When I would ask my mom to share stories about how Antisemitism affected her life in the former Soviet Union, I felt angry that these were not incidents happening to my grandparents pre-World War II in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but rather that these occurred during my mom’s childhood in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Now I return to 2019 America: Today, I am so fortunate to live with both of my parents, who work as hard as they can so that I can afford the best academic support and tools I need to attend a prestigious high school and, hopefully, a prestigious college. I understand the sacrifices my family and my ancestors made so that I can be here. Their sacrifices allow me to focus my worry on whether I should take another standardized test, or if I should complete another internship, not whether my family will be persecuted. I understand how lucky I am to live in a country where I can demonstrate my religion without tremendous fear of it being used to hurt me. There are still days when I feel like my Judaism is viewed in a negative light, when I awkwardly laugh through the multitude of “Jew jokes” I hear and are told to lighten up because “well, they are just jokes”. What my peers often do not realize is that those jokes are what people have said about Jews for generations and which have formed the backbone of Antisemitism.  

As I have said before, this country is not perfect — nowhere near it — but I still love and appreciate the freedoms it gives me and my family! I love that I am able to protest with my brothers and sisters for the changes that need to be made. I love that I can stand up to someone when they make an Antisemitic remark and feel like I’m part of the cultural environment that makes America a wonderful place to live. 

For me and my brother and my parents and grandparents to turn on the news and see people yelling about how much they hate this country is shocking. To hate a country that gave my mom a chance to become a pharmacist when she wasn’t allowed to in her homeland, a country where I can wear my Star of David safely around my neck, a country where I can celebrate Passover and Hanukkah proudly, both insults and hurts me. This is just my story but I know there are many others just like.

So, I ask my peers, please love all of the opportunities this country gives you!

By Sarrah Livson

Bard College High School ‘21; Civic Spirit Intern; Maimonides Scholar

Sarrah on the job as a Civic Spirit Intern