The story behind my book THE AMERICAN MIRACLE begins with my late father, whose birth in Philadelphia 90 years ago constitutes an American miracle of its own.
My grandfather, a barrel maker from a destitute and decrepit village in Ukraine, came to the United States in 1906. He left behind his wife and six children, hoping to earn enough money in America to pay for their passage to the New World. He finally saved the dollars he needed and sent for his family; they began their journey by train to the steamship that would take them from a German harbor across the ocean to a fresh start. Unfortunately, their long trip began in the blood-soaked month of August, 1914, so that World War I broke out before they could leave the territory of the old Russian Empire. With the border sealed because of the conflict, the desperate mother had no choice but to retreat with her brood to their home village to wait out the fighting.
Over the following nine years of War, Bolshevik Revolution and then brutal civil war between the “Reds” and the “Whites,” hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews lost their lives to violence, starvation and disease – including my grandparents’ five daughters. With my Uncle Moish the only surviving child, my still mourning grandmother finally escaped the Russian chaos in 1924 and reunited with her husband in Philadelphia. They had lived apart for 18 tragic years and had reached the ages of 48 and 43, respectively.
Nonetheless, they renewed their marriage until my grandmother fell desperately ill within 12 months of her arrival. Feeling bloated and dizzy, gaining weight even though she couldn’t keep down her food, she delayed seeing a doctor because she felt certain a deadly tumor had begun to grow inside her.
That “tumor” turned out to be my father, a miraculous new life in a miraculous new land. He bore the Yiddish nickname “tummerel” (“Little Tumor”) throughout his childhood in South Philadelphia. He had come into the world long after his mother had ceased her normal female cycle – much like her Biblical namesake, Sarah, with her own astonishing late-in-life delivery.
My dad, who grew up in poverty but won competitive scholarships to earn three degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (including his PhD in Physics), never lost his sense of wondrous amazement at the unlikely circumstances of his own existence.
To many immigrant families, America represented the “Goldene Medinah” – the “Golden Province.” To my father and his parents, this country counted as “The Land of New Life” – prepared by God Almighty for their deliverance and rebirth. My grandfather became a naturalized citizen in 1943 at the height of the war and the next year my father joined the United States Navy following his high school graduation.
When I came along a few years after the war, my father passed on to me his sense of astonishment at the blessings we enjoyed as Americans. Some of my earliest memories involve my father taking me to Independence Hall to see the Liberty Bell and to marvel at the work that Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and later George Washington had accomplished in that spot — writing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the same handsomely l-preserved room. We visited Valley Forge on a winter weekend, so my dad could describe the heroic, upright figure of General Washington on his big white horse, while leading me, at age 4, to visualize the freezing, shoeless but indomitable troops of the beleaguered Continental Army who left their bloody footprints in the snow.
My father only became conventionally religious as a much older man, in the midst of a busy career as a physics professor, NASA researcher, Scientist Astronaut and high tech entrepreneur. But at no point in his life did he ever question the proposition that a higher power had elevated America among all the nations of the earth and specially blessed her people for his benevolent purposes. In that fervent conviction, he may have been typical of citizens of the Greatest Generation, or of every American generation, for that matter. A general belief that destiny has specially favored the United States has always been more broadly and, perhaps, more deeply shared than adherence to any specific points of theology.
I too shared that proud, mystical outlook, growing up as a history nerd and dressing up as George Washington the first time my parents allowed me to trick or treat. In 8th grade, I won a Daughters of the American Revolution history contest (with an American flag as the prize) and as a high school junior in Los Angeles I triumphed in another American heritage competition sponsored by a local newspaper. At Yale, I thrilled to the two-and-a-half-century traditions of that place and studied colonial history with the great Professor Edmund Morgan; Joseph Ellis, later a titan in the field and a best-selling biographer, served as the teaching assistant who led our section.
My wife Diane’s background also qualifies her as a Daughter of the American Revolution – her direct ancestor, Sergeant Jacob Roth, fought under General Washington for six years—and her family made it to California in the Gold Rush. Her grandfather founded the first Jewish newspaper in Southern California in 1897. In the 1990’s, Diane co-founded an Orthodox Jewish elementary school (“Menorah Academy”) and I used to come in to teach the eager kids (including our daughters) amazing stories of the founding of the Republic, and the noble heroes who built America, against the odds.
I told those stories to larger audiences a few years later after I began broadcasting my daily radio show in July of 1996. The next Patriot Day, April 19th, I interrupted the on-air conversation of Clinton-era politics to tell the inspiring and intimate story of Lexington, Concord and “the shot heard round the world.” The enthusiastic audience response made “History Programs” a regular feature of my show on national holidays (Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King Day and more) as well as on Jewish religious holidays when I can’t broadcast live. We eventually opened the “Medved History Store,” accumulating some 80 cassette tapes, and later CD’s, and still later MP3 downloads, with narrative accounts of the most significant themes and events in our stirring history.
None of these offerings achieved greater popularity than “God’s Hand on America,” about the amazing series of co-incidences that seemed to indicate special blessings for the United States, and a follow-up program, “The Case for Divine Providence in U.S. History.” Elements from these productions served to shape and guide accounts in this book; after the success of The 10 Big Lies About America (2008) and The 5 Big Lies About American Business (2010), I wanted to move ahead with the major project that I’d been talking about and contemplating for more than a decade.
A battle with throat cancer (between the end of 2014 and the middle of 2015) slowed my progress, to be sure, but my passion for this particular project, and my determination to bring its arguments to light, significantly aided my recovery.
In a sense, this is the book I’d been preparing to write ever since my earliest memories of visits to historic sites in my Philadelphia childhood; it’s even arguable that long before my birth, parents and grandparents had pre-ordained a sense of awe-struck gratitude toward our God-haunted, uniquely blessed Republic.
I can only hope that the chapters I’ve written, and my ability to communicate the grand themes that connect them, can live up in some small degree to the splendor of the material. The underlying story amounts to the “the last and greatest of all human dreams,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in which “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”