July 4, 2017

DECLARE IT:

The Case for a Fourth of July Seder (Alan Burdick and Eliza Byard, July 2, 2017, The new Yorker)

 In the nineteen-thirties, Maxwell House developed and began distributing a Haggadah for free with every can of coffee sold, in part to persuade Jews that the coffee bean is kosher for Passover. A genius stroke of branded content, it is the most popular Haggadah in the world--the U.S. military still uses it--and thelongest-running sales promotion in advertising history.

The Exodus story has been entwined in American history since the very beginning of the Republic. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress tasked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams with designing the first great seal of the United States. Franklin wanted an image of Moses parting the Red Sea, a doomed pharaoh in hot pursuit; Jefferson wanted an image of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. (Adams hoped that Hercules would appear on the seal, but Congress ultimately went with a coat of arms on one side and a pyramid on the other.) For many early Americans, including Douglass, the Exodus was a common reference point in discussions of slavery, and it remained a pillar narrative for African-Americans through the civil-rights movement and into the present. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final sermon, said that he, like Moses, had "been to the mountaintop"; like Moses, he never reached the Promised Land.

What would a good Fourth of July Seder look like? We'll let gastronomes work out the menu. But one core ritual, easily carried out in ten minutes, should be to read the Declaration of Independence out loud. Sure, you could read it online or in print--many newspapers devote a full-page ad to it each year. Or you could have it read to you, a service NPR provides annually, or watch the YouTube video in which Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Benicio Del Toro and other celebrities take turns reading lines from it. But, if any document was meant to be enacted at a back-yard barbecue, the Declaration of Independence is it. It's a declaration; let's declare it.