"The New Colossus" poem by Emma Lazarus; lyrics for Irving Berlin musical, "Miss Liberty"
A friend recently told me that Emma Lazarus’s poem had been set to music by Irving Berlin. She said the women’s chorus of which she is a member sang it, and that I should check it out. It would make me weep, she said. It did.
In the context of the current skirmish over immigration and our highest court's split about whether President Obama’s proposal to allow 4 million immigrants to stay here and work here, Lazarus’s message rings sacred. Yes, I know it’s a vision, a dream—two words never to be prefaced by “only” or “just.”
My mother loved broadway musicals. Cole Porter and Irving Berlin were her two favorite idols. The information that Irving Berlin, composer and lyricist for “God Bless America,” first sung by Kate Smith in 1938, the year I was born, had written music for the Lazarus poem only added to my tears.
Mom died 18 years ago. I bet she never knew that music was the only source of income for Berlin, born Israel Isidore Baline (later Berlin, thanks to a typo) in 1888 in Belarus. Music was also the source of income for Mom’s own Jewish father. Berlin’s father had been a cantor in a synagogue. Through his father’s singing vocation Berlin learned to love music—for its spiritual power and its sheer beauty. I don’t know where my grandfather learned to love music, but he made a career of importing classical musical talent—most of it Jewish— from Europe to America.
With their music, my grandfather and Irving Berlin made this country rich. Neither would have come to America without the invitational hospitality of a Jewish poet named Emma and this country’s foundational principles.
And neither man would have come here without being ushered in by the inspired grandeur of the enormous Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of America. She stands as a symbol of freedom and democracy. She holds a torch of welcome, stands 305’ 1” tall, and weighs in at 27,000 tons. Up close she represents one image of the soul of America.
As a child growing up in Manhattan, I looked up to her as if to a Goddess. I was also a little afraid of her, just because she was so huge and a bit stern looking.
For some of us today the message she carries is frightening. Whom shall we let in? Will we lose our rights, our identities, our properties if we share? Have we become so afraid of “pollutants” from without that we are going to create a toxic closed system within our borders—such that we will stifle—not grow, not evolve?
Lady Liberty, the one Berlin praised in song, in all her glory and her gospel, reflects the God I love and worship, the One who amorizes the whole cosmos, kindling love throughout.