What to Americans is the real significance of the Fourth of July? Part of the answer may lie in the confluence of the American and the Jewish experience. This Fourth of July weekend, we are especially aware of many parallels between American and Jewish history, recurrent themes of bondage and slavery, exodus and freedom, justice and civility, bravery and courage. The parallels to Passover are evident. On Passover, Jews gather together to retell the story of the ancestral struggle and deliverance from slavery. The haggadah (retelling) year after year and from generation to generation is how we teach our children the value of freedom and the indignities of slavery.
So it should be for all Americans on July Fourth. Why can’t the Passover story and the haggadah serve as a model for how Independence Day is observed by the American people? How can the significance of the Fourth of July and the events of Sept. 11 be reintroduced and memorialized by all people? The Skirball Cultural Center has found this challenge to be essential to our evolving mission.
On Sunday, June 30, we introduced what is intended to be an annual celebration of Independence Day, to enthusiastic audiences young and old. We commissioned what could be considered an American Independence Day "haggadah" — a new play by Tom Bryant and Robert Kirschner titled, "The Promise of Freedom." Produced in association with the Mark Taper Forum and directed by Robert Egan, the play captures the drama of America’s struggle for independence and the founding fathers’ vision of democracy. Thus, inspired by the Jewish tradition of retelling the Passover story year after year, this new drama has introduced what we hope will be a new American tradition of historical memory.
But there is something more.
Following Sept. 11, Kevin Starr, the celebrated California historian, spoke at the Skirball. "The special insights into memory found in Jewish history and tradition are really needed by the whole country," he said. I concur. The events surrounding Sept. 11 will not be recalled by future generations, unless they, as well as other significant American historical events such as July Fourth, are memorialized through cyclical rituals — rituals that encourage these events to be told and retold each year in a family or communal setting.
So it is fitting and far from coincidental that the Skirball, an institution rooted in American and Jewish values, was selected as one of only six North American exhibition venues — and the only Jewish one — for "Faces of Ground Zero: A Photographic Tribute to America’s Heroes"(for more on the exhibit, see page 22).
That in itself may appear mere happenstance, but for the Skirball it transcends happenstance. The exhibition pays tribute to the many men and women who displayed extraordinary bravery and courage in the face of tragedy. Since opening the exhibition on June 20, we have welcomed more than 1,000 visitors per day.
The exhibition represents a significant fit with the Skirball mission, since the Skirball Cultural Center defines itself as a Jewish institution in an American context. We are inspired by the parallels between Jewish values and American democratic principles. The Skirball is where the encounter between the two is appreciated, cultivated, memorialized and celebrated.
It speaks to our mission as an American institution, one to which the American fate is a major concern, where the values of American democracy are a precious heritage. In that sense, "Ground Zero" is everywhere and its faces belong to all of us, whatever our religious and ethnic identity may be.
As I said to Kevin Starr during our post-Sept. 11 dialogue, I am immensely proud to be an American citizen with two memories: one Jewish, one American. I want to take that privilege and move forward, as a citizen of one community, sharing memory.
Dr. Uri D. Herscher is founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.