The descendant of two immigrants, each named Aaron, Mark Glickman looks with awe at the great forces that brought his family to this country.
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s 236th birthday, I reflect upon the lives of two Jewish immigrants to our shores, both of whom were named Aaron. Together, their stories can remind us of the great drama of the American experience.
The first Aaron was named Aaron Marx — no relation to history’s more famous Marxes, such as Karl and Groucho. In 1853, at the age of 19, Aaron moved from his home in Sterbfritz, Germany, to the United States.
It was a time when many Jews were leaving Germany for the U.S., partly to avoid political upheavals, but mostly in search of the economic opportunity this country promised.
Within a few years, Aaron had settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, married and found work as a bookbinder. During the Civil War, he volunteered for the Union Army, and in 1863 participated in the military cleanup operations after the Battle of Gettysburg.
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Later, Aaron moved to Cleveland, where he became a policeman — a truant officer. It was said the mere mention of his name instilled fear in the hearts of vagabond children throughout the city. He died in 1901.
The other Aaron was named Aaron Apple — no relation to history’s more famous Apples, such as Fuji and Macintosh. He was born and raised in Nowy Sacz, Poland, and, despite the growing violence against Eastern European Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he apparently planned to live in Poland for his entire life.
Several of his 10 children did emigrate to the U.S., however, and in June 1914, 55 year-old Aaron Apple and his wife decided to visit. Just as they arrived, World War I broke out, making it impossible to return to Poland.
By the end of the war, the Apples had become settled in their new American home and decided to stay.
Aaron Apple, like Aaron Marx, also lived in Cleveland, where he worked as a supervisor of the city’s kosher meat markets. He had a long white beard and deep-set eyes, and was widely regarded as the patriarch of his family. When he died in 1936, he had 23 grandchildren.
In a sense, the stories of Aaron Marx and Aaron Apple are diametrical opposites. One came to the United States to make a living and ended up working as a soldier and cop to guarantee the safety of others.
The other set down his American roots to avoid imperiling his safety, and ended up doing what he could to eke out a living.
It’s a good thing they moved here, of course. Later, during World War II, the families of many of their relatives who remained in Europe were murdered in the Holocaust.
They shared something else in common. Long after both men died, their family trees wound together and connected. Both Aaron Marx and Aaron Apple, you see, were my great-great-grandfathers.
And I, their descendant, look with awe at the great forces that brought my family to this country — the promise of prosperity, the terrors of persecution, the upheavals of war and, among many others, two remarkable men named Aaron.
Life in America wasn’t always easy for the Aarons and their descendants. Here, too, there was war; here, too, there were times of deprivation; here, too, life presented enormous challenges to each successive generation of our growing American family.
For the most part, however, the dreams of both of my great-great grandfathers have been realized. Despite occasional threats and violence, we live in a land that is overwhelmingly safe — free of widespread persecution, unscarred by the ravages of war that tear apart so many other lands.
And while some Americans are poor, as a nation we are prosperous beyond compare, enjoying material and spiritual riches my ancestors could hardly dream of.
So, happy birthday, America! Happy birthday from one of your grateful Jewish sons. I thank you for your many precious gifts, and I prayyou will always be a nation where the great dreams of our ancestors can come true.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to email@example.com