The Land of Possibilities

By: Shneur Agronin  |  March 27, 2024

By Shneur Agronin, Staff Writer

“America, America, may God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!” calls out a refrain from one of the most popular patriotic songs, “America the Beautiful,” written by poet Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 and updated to its current version in 1911. Inspired by the captivating majesty of the Rocky Mountains as viewed from Pikes Peak in southern Colorado, Bates penned a tribute to America’s beauty emanating both from its natural features and the values around which the Founding Fathers centered it. The song’s other verses poetically laud the religiously persecuted courageous pilgrims who settled America in the 17th century; the heroic sacrifices of those who fought and died in American wars; and the sustained vision (in Bates’s words, the “patriot dream”) of a society ruled by its constituents which continues to fuel the unparalleled American ingenuity and industriousness.

As an Orthodox Jew and fourth-generation American, “America the Beautiful” features every reminder of why I feel so proud and lucky to be an American. I take immense pride in calling home a country whose creed of E Pluribus Unum (“From many, one”) drove and still drives the once-radical notion that all who aspire to live in a free society and govern themselves can do so irrespective of one’s inalienable traits. I cherish the privileges I enjoy as an American to practice my religion, voice my opinions, elect my leaders, protest causes I deem unjust, and access unbiased information. I celebrate this country’s diversity and the related fact that all Americans enjoy the same rights as a constitutional guarantee and that truly anyone can become an American. 

Yet, I cannot ignore the imperfections and even grievous misdeeds committed and permitted by the American society and leadership of the past and present. The eras of slavery and Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the current state of political divide seeming to fracture this ideally indivisible nation are all clear reminders that America was, is, and always will be far from perfect. Naturally, I often encounter a question from others and even myself at times: How do I reconcile my patriotism with the historical and present realities of my country’s imperfections?

Curiously, I decided to collect some data from fellow YU students regarding their own attitudes toward patriotism and America as a whole, to see if their responses might aid me in coming up with a suitable answer to my question. Of those who responded to my poll, which included a 1-5 scale of pride in one’s American identity (1 being the lowest and 5 the highest), the vast majority (81%) answered a 3 or above. The most popular single word respondents (43% of them) associate with America, unsurprisingly, was “freedom,” with “diversity,” “divided,” “liberty,” and “barbecue” following close behind. The demographics of respondents in terms of how long they and/or their families have called America home varied greatly and included  many fourth and first-generation Americans. 

Among those who feel less pride in their American identity or who reject such an identity in the first place, some express evident disdain for both the inherent ideals of America and its current leadership. One student wrote, “A Jew has no place in America. America at its core is antithetical to our Torah and its values that we are to learn from.” Another wrote, “America is weak and Joe Biden embarrassed  the whole country by representing us.” Eli Novick (YC ‘26), rating himself a 2 on the “patriotism” scale, described an opinion I feel represents the consensus of many similarly intelligent and deeply-thinking YU students, “I know I should appreciate this country more, and cognitively I understand how lucky I am, but emotionally I don’t feel it…at the end of the day America is simply a (mostly positive) thing that happened to me instead of a part of my identity.” Perhaps my favorite response comes from the following student’s beautifully written testimony to American diversity and inclusivity: “I am proud to be a citizen of a country that welcomes immigrants from around the world…that is a melting pot of different cultures…that is built up because of people’s dreams and aspirations…that stands for democracy and freedom. Of course, America is far from perfect – it has a lot of problems, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re all blessed to live here.” What single word did this student choose in order to sum up America? Possibilities. I certainly agree with them. 

Using the prospect of possibilities, I now feel capable of addressing the principal dilemma I posed to myself earlier. In truth, no honest and morally upstanding person can conjure up any excuses or valuable justifications for every mistake and misdeed which our country, and those who have and continue to govern it must take responsibility for. Nevertheless, we have managed to move forward as a nation thanks to those who saw the possibilities which future society could afford them. The country in which Black slaves suffered for nearly a hundred years and whose emancipated descendants yet endured a hundred more of Jim Crow persecution is the very same country where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech which contributed to Congress’s passing of the Civil Rights Act the following year. The country in which female and minority voices fell on deaf ears for much of its history is the same country whose current Congress includes hundreds of female and minority representatives – more than any other Congress to date. The country whose Declaration of Independence stated in 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” is the same country which we live in today almost 250 years later. Although in practice this country’s policy ran contrary to Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertion, it is this crucial element of the American people and ideals which is responsible for the positive trends described above: in America, we the people are the greatest force for change. Few if any other nations can claim that such a principle formed the basis for their systems of government from the beginning as ours can. It is that uniquely American value – that we can, have, and will strive to realize the future’s possibilities – which I take so much pride in. It is in America where I, an Orthodox Jew, a minority of minorities, feel equally a member of this great society as anyone else because I know that my voice matters.

“I am an American; free born and free bred, where I acknowledge no man as my superior, except for his own worth, or as my inferior, except for his own demerit,” said President Theodore Roosevelt describing the perspective which all of us ought to adopt. Although spoken during an era when millions of Americans faced persecution on account of their race, these words represent the future possible for Americans to come. A society which neither punishes nor privileges its citizens based on any other characteristics than those which our conscious choices give rise to. As Americans, the possibilities for change and progress in our society rest in our hands.

Whether or not you feel the same way I do about America, I value your right to express your opinions and advocate for the causes you feel passionate about. After all, it is only through unity, the facilitated expression of diverse opinions, and dialogue that we can create an America of the future that looks like the America which the Founding Fathers conceived: a country guaranteeing equal rights, freedom, justice, and wonderful possibilities for all.