Watching Cecile Cohen and her sister, Roberta, carefully unfold a nearly eight-foot-by five-foot American flag on their Jerusalem dining room table, one senses, through their silent awe, that a lot more than acid-free tissue paper is tucked between its near-perfect folds.
"Our grandfather, Herman Friedman, bought this flag in 1912," says 85-year-old Cecile, a retired mathematics teacher and supervisor from New York City. "He would hang it outside our Bronx home every July 4th and on all American holidays."
This July 4th – the Centennial anniversary of their family treasure – the Cohens will display the flag during the festive brunch they are holding in their Jerusalem home. Because of the delicate state of the flag they can't hang it on their balcony, but they will spread it across their dining room table for guests to admire.
"We recently had the flag restored because it started falling apart," says Roberta, 77, a retired religious studies teacher and former senior citizens' center director, pointing to the blue field of 48 stars, and its machine-sewn seven red stripes and six slightly discolored white stripes. A white, sheet-like material has been hand-stitched to the entire back of the cotton flag in order to reinforce it.
As the Cohens tell it, their maternal grandfather – who arrived in New York City from his native Hungary in 1882 at the age of 16 – bought the flag soon after it was issued in 1912, the year Arizona joined the Union and became the 48th state.
"He was very, very patriotic – our whole family was," recalls Roberta of Herman Friedman, who moved into the family home on Gerard Avenue and 165th Street, near Yankee Stadium, following the death of his wife in the early 1920's. When he died in 1936, his daughter, Estelle, gave the flag to their older daughter, Cecile.
The Cohens, who were residents of the Bronx for more than 60 years, were the first on their block to hang a flag outside the family home. Following each holiday the flag was "laundered, ironed, folded and neatly put away until the next celebration," according to an essay Roberta wrote in 2002 that was published by the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI).
The Cohens believe their mother's family roots in America go back to 1860, the period of the Civil War. "It was known in our family that some of our ancestors recalled the Lincoln assassination," says Roberta, a grandmother of five. Her husband Irving, who died in 1985, owned a nearly three-foot by two-foot 48-star flag.
"This is definitely a commercially made flag," says Jeff Bridgman, a Pennsylvania-based flag expert and dealer in antique American flags, who reviewed several photos of the 1912 flag submitted to him by Haaretz. But from the photos, it was difficult to determine precisely how the stars were applied to the flag. "They are not printed or stenciled," wrote Bridgman, in response to several questions. He estimated the flag was worth about $100.
"Forty-eight star flags are not valuable unless [they are] unusual for some reason of collectible interest," according to Bridgman.
The Cohens' sense of American pride is matched only by their Zionist zeal.
"Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) we put up an Israeli flag," notes Cecile, who has been visiting Israel frequently since 1988, before settling in the country in 1996. The flag of the city of Jerusalem has adorned their porch since May 20, when they celebrated Jerusalem Day.
The sisters credit their parents for infusing them with an abundant dose of American patriotism.
"They were always saying good things about the United States," Cecile says of her parents, who were married for more than 50 years. "It was instilled in us from an early age."
"My mother was extremely patriotic, just like grandpa was, and she often quoted from Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and knew the Gettysburg Address by heart," says Roberta.
Cecile recalled her father, Meyer, participating in the annual parades along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx as a WWI veteran and member of the Jewish War Veterans of America. An insurance agent, he could only afford to purchase a veteran's cap, which he wore to the parade. Later on he was able to buy the full uniform. "He was so proud marching in all of the parades," Cecile recalls.
"I think the idea of continuity is very important, and also patriotism," says Cecile. "When you think back to your ancestors – one should not forget their roots, their background, and just keep in mind where they came from."
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