PINCHAS JULY 4TH 5773
The most talked about issue in America as we approach the 237th anniversary of the founding of America on July 4th is the immigration bill that passed the Senate this past week. I won’t comment directly about the bill other than to say what everyone on both sides is now saying: we desperately need immigration reform!
If you spend any time watching the news you mainly hear about what’s wrong with America. But if our great country is so bad, “Why is it,” as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “this is the only country in the world where everyone wants to get into, and no one wants to leave?”
I dedicate my remarks this morning to my grandparents, of blessed memory, and to yours, and to all the other parents and grandparents who crossed Europe—one way or the other—on foot or on carriages or by train, and who then booked passage on steamers, where they were stuffed into dormitories in 3rd class, in numbers that were beyond capacity, and beyond safety, and who endured much during those long trips across the Atlantic, so that they could get to America.
Some of them—I hate to tell you this—came to America without 1st serving in the Czar’s army, which, I suppose, technically made them violators of Russian law. So I suppose that they could be classified as illegal immigrants. You see, the law is that if you break the law in the country from which you came, you can’t get into this country. Thank Gd America looked the other way for these illegal immigrants.
Martin Dies was Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, before Senator McCarthy in the 1930s and 40s. He once boasted that if Congress let him have his way, he would deport 7 million aliens. Understand that the population of America then was less than ½ of what it is now so 7 million was quite a large number. When he said that, the NY Post (10/12/40) published a column by Ernest Meyer titled, “A Land Without Aliens.” Let me read you some of it:
Now it happened that Martin Dies rubbed the magic lamp, and the genie appeared, and the genie said, “What is thy will, master?” And Martin Dies answered, “It is my will that straightway, all the aliens in America be exiled to some distant and most inhospitable spot, and there do sufferance for their sins.”
And the genie said, “Truly I can grant thy wish, master, but there is a law in my land which says that whosoever is sent into exile shall be allowed to take with him whatever he has created by his own efforts. This, I think, is a just law, and if you abide by it, I can grant your desire.”
Martin Dies agreed. The genie…uttered a few words of strange power, and a miracle happened. It followed in that very instant that a vast fleet of barges and boats was fashioned, and into them, millions upon millions, flocked the aliens, and they took with them what they had created in America.
They took with them highways hewn out of the wilderness by Sicilians and Slavs, and great rafts of lumber felled in the forests by the Irish, Swedes and Norwegians, and many millions of square miles of earth made fertile by the Germans, the Danes and the Dutch, and billions of garments woven by the Jews, and mountainous masses of coal and iron and copper dug from the pits by Italians and Finns and Poles, and whole cities of skyscrapers and subways and railroads and mills and marts wrought by the sinews of many aliens from the earth’s 4 quarters.
And they took with them also their alien culture, their music and their songs, their languages and their literature, their books and their Bibles and their cookery, their piety and their passions, their ideals and philosophy and folk dances and fun which had been woven into the rich and multi-colored fabric of America.
Now all this happened when the genie granted the wish of Martin Dies…the aliens left with all their works, and a great want followed, and a great and strange silence. And in that silence, there was naught to be heard save the frightened whimpering of Martin Dies crying, “Genie, genie!” But there was no answer, for the genie, an alien, was on one of the boats to Baghdad, and after that, there was nothing and the night.
This column from 1940 still rings true. It remarkably conveys the truth that the real strength of America—what Michael Medved calls, “The greatest country on Gd’s green earth”—comes from 2 things: its unparalleled freedom and its diversity. And the diversity comes from its immigrants!
We American Jews have much to be grateful for. America gave us a haven during the worst times of our history—a haven of freedom that allowed us to grow into increasing acceptance and prosperity. It is no wonder that the song that most epitomizes the blessings of America—“Gd Bless America”—was written by a Jew: Irving Berlin.
It was “Gd Bless America” that we sang after 9/11 and not the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was heard spontaneously on the steps of the Capital that day and for months later at most gatherings of Americans. I guess no one wanted to hear the Star Spangled Banner’s “bombs bursting in air.” And on the steps of the Capital that day you could see black Democrats and white Republicans holding hands as they sung because that is what America is all about.
In her new book, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, Sheryl Kaskowitz reveals that Irving Berlin originally wrote “Gd Bless America” for a 1918 revue that included among its sundry delights a blackface number and a drag routine—all performed by a cast of WWI American soldiers. But the song was cut from the show before opening night. Berlin dug “Gd Bless America” out of the wastebasket in 1938 after radio superstar Kate Smith asked him for a patriotic song to sing on her show for Armistice Day.
Berlin, a Belarusian Jewish immigrant who grew up speaking Yiddish, did not fail to notice that the premiere of “Gd Bless America” in the United States coincided with Kristallnacht in Germany. Kaskowitz quotes from the memoir of Mary Ellin Barrett, the eldest daughter of Berlin and his Catholic wife: “My parents worried that the Germans would win and make an arrangement with the United States. And if that happened, how would they protect their half-Jewish children?”
By 1940, “Gd Bless America” seemed to be everywhere, Kaskowitz writes. The Brooklyn Dodgers played it at every home game that year—soon all of baseball adopted it—and both the Democrats and the Republicans incorporated it into their conventions and campaigns…Several anti-Semitic groups predictably targeted “Gd Bless America” as evidence of an imagined Jewish conspiracy, though the pro-Nazi German American Bund embraced the tune for a time at its New Jersey retreat—that is until they called for a boycott of the song upon discovering that it was written by a Jew.”
Certainly as American Jews, the song, “Gd Bless America,” is close to our hearts. Let us celebrate the 4th of July this coming week as a real Yontif. Let us not say Tachanun—a prayer not said on Jewish holidays—when we pray that day. And let us resolve to maintain the 2 pillars of this great land: to keep the torch of freedom lit and to keep our doors open. For this is what America is all about, and this is what makes us strong. So on this Shabbos before July 4th let us rise and sing together “Gd Bless America”:
Gd Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
Gd bless America, My home sweet home. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis