I wish I could start the story this way: All their youth my parents dreamed of coming to America. For years they saved up their shekels and then, come July 4, 1976, they landed with the cork popping, ready to fete their new homeland on her 200th birthday.
In fact, this is what happened: When I was 6 years old my parents left Israel, forever altering our lives for some impetuous-sounding reason. ("Our lease expired," my mother tells me, or "Your father was tired of driving a truck.") We landed at JFK Airport in the evening, cranky from the long trip, and from haggling with immigration people who didn't understand a word my parents said.
As we drove to find the particular six-story, red-brick building in Queens that would now be our home, we heard what sounded like gunshots around us, and fire lit up the sky. We had no clue what was going on. We certainly had no idea it was some kind of holiday. My parents must have been thinking: "Great. We left Tel Aviv and flew 11 hours just to land in the West Bank."
Last year I took my two young kids to the Takoma Park Fourth of July parade for the first time. This is a quirky and inventive version of the usual patriotic fare -- no glitzy floats, no glittery girls twirling synchronized batons. Guys under a "Get Reel" banner show off their no-motor reel lawn mowers, while the Tiny Tots just sort of toddle along the route, exhibiting no particular talent. But at least it's a parade, the dancers from Trinidad and Tobago, kids walking by, smiling, waving an occasional handmade American flag.
For all of my youth trapped in an immigrant's ghetto on the east side of Queens, I thought parades were something that existed only in Sweet Valley High, or some other teenage romance available from the rotating shelf of the Briarwood Public Library. I was never sure if they still existed or if they were relics of an earlier age in America; they occupied roughly the same space in my mind as hair curlers and breakfast sausage, football captains and prom queens. A "float" was what the Italian kids in junior high called a car someone had just dragged out of the Hudson River.
At some point my family got clued into the Fourth of July, first because Raj of Raj's Stationery put up a sign in his store window that said "Happy Beerthday America" and we asked him about it. Later, the details were filled in for me at school assembly. My father drove a cab and this was a busy night, so he was never home, and without him we couldn't get anywhere. So after sundown, my mother, brother and I would walk a couple of blocks to the handball courts at Hoover Park, where I'd spent the whole afternoon anyway.
For those who've passed a romantic Fourth of July at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, watching the spectacular neon sunbursts light up the New York skyline, wipe that image from your minds. The Hoover Park courts are roughly 1,200 square feet of concrete divided into four sections, and enclosed by a chain-link fence. They look out over the Van Wyck Expressway. That's it. Certainly no place to hold Lady Liberty's Magical Light Show, unless you were intent on joining the community of the deaf.
The thrill of the occasion came from watching the usual neighborhood ethnic hierarchies reversed. Usually Angel, the Prince of the Puerto Ricans, ruled the courts, which meant he got to decide who played handball and when (I got preferential treatment because my brother was dating Angel's sister Maria). But on this one night it was the Chinese boys -- kids with made-up names like Billy and Bobby -- who had the superior ammo. When they set down their big red bags bulging with XXX Rockets and Missiles, Angel backed up in a pyro-deprived sulk. There were no Chinese gangs yet in Queens, but this must have been the place they got their first taste of power. The scene was like D-Day confined to Cellblock H. They aimed not for the heavens, but close to the ground, at people's feet. The goal was not to entertain anyone in the usual way; it was to see how many times Billy Lee could make Angel dance.
At some point after midnight the people we thought of as the "Americans" showed up, which in our world meant the Italians from Cross Bay Boulevard. They had already put on a respectable fireworks show in their own neighborhood, and now it was time for some after-hours thrills. Out of the trunks of their Trans Ams they pulled out equipment to match the Chinese, and they had better aim. In their own neighborhood they'd scooped up the little kids and given them extra cannolis that night to enjoy during the show. But here, on foreign ground, kids were just another target. Once, we'd heard, a neighborhood 6-year-old came home with a hole in his knee. At this point my mother would take us home.
For my family the "Americans" were a shifting target none of us could ever quite get a hold of. To my father they were the chattering businessmen in the back of his taxi, all rich and polite. To me they were my teachers in school, or the handful of kids at assembly who knew all the words to the national anthem. To my mother they were the people you had to present yourself to; the few times cops stopped by our apartment -- my dad's cab had been stolen, my mom's purse had been snatched -- she would manically scrub the apartment and then beam with pride when one of them said he could eat off the floor. Once my brother told me a story about being mortified at something my father had said to a neighbor, and I reacted with a shrug. "But he was an American," my brother protested, as if that should explain his total embarrassment.
Eventually we too, of course, became Americans. Immigration officials picked my father to take the citizenship test for the family, although he was the only one of us who couldn't read English and said the first president was Richard Nixon. But he passed, and on the momentous day we got to go to the immigration office and sign our gold-sealed papers. The officers encourage you to "Americanize" your name, and nearly all of us did. My brother changed his name from Meir to Michael, my father from Eliahu to Ely. I got in an argument with my mother that day and in a teenage fit of spite gave myself the middle name Whitney, which haunts me to this day. Hanna Whitney Rosin. Welcome to America.
These days my mother especially has lost any sense of intimidation. She now refers to "the Americans" mockingly as the "Yankee Doodles." Recently she admitted that her ducking the Fourth of July for those first few years was less cluelessness than defiance. "If I accepted their Independence Day it meant I was never going back," she said. "And we were always sitting on our suitcases, ready to get on the next plane." But like most immigrants, they never did it.
The latest wave of immigrants to land in Briarwood are the Bukharan Jews, from the former Soviet Union. They are refugees from the Cold War and grateful to America, so they got it right pretty quickly. Within a year the Bukharan bakery was selling pastries topped with red, white and blue icing for the Fourth of July, and the deli owner had decorated his store with American flags. I asked one of them, a shoemaker who knows my parents, if he was celebrating the Fourth of July, and he said, "Of course. What do you think, I'm a Russian?" That night he would be taking his family to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.