My prayer for America

As the hopes and dreams of immigrants are being tested, I remember placing my hand over my heart and proudly pledging allegiance to one indivisible nation
US flag (BreakingTheWalls / iStock)
US flag (BreakingTheWalls / iStock)

Each Shabbat at Minyan M’At, the New York City congregation where my family davens, a different member of the group is asked to deliver a prayer for the United States. When I recently accepted that assignment, I began to think, what does it mean to be a citizen of the United States? We have been preoccupied by mid-term elections, voters’ rights and responsibilities. What does it mean to be a citizen?

And I began to muse…

And these are the musings I shared with our Minyan :

I recalled my Aunt Oudie, my mother’s sister, who was a first-grade teacher in Lynn, Massachusetts.

She loved her work, she loved her pupils, and often said, “If I teach a child to read, I know that I have set them on a course to help them succeed in Life.”

But then she began to think about the parents of her students. Lynn was a melting pot. A shoe factory town, near Gloucester, a fishing town. Immigrants from Greece, Italy, Portugal and Eastern Europe lived side by side.

My Aunt Oudie decided she had to worry about the parents of her first graders and began to teach, what was then called Night School—naturalization classes. And she taught adults to prepare for their naturalization, to become citizens She encouraged them, nurtured them just as she did their children and accompanied them to the day they became citizens of the United States.

Coming before a judge to gain citizenship surely was a daunting experience. 

My musings took me to Sioux City Iowa, where, my husband Jules was born. His Zeide, Sam Lipman arrived there from Ukraine in the early 1900s and quickly established himself as a leader in the Jewish Community. Sam Lipman was the president of the chevra kadishah, president of two synagogues, Orthodox and later Conservative, president of the cemetery organization, and self-appointed president of the Jewish Businessmen’s Association. 

The story is told in Sioux City that when a Mrs. Greenberg had completed her naturalization classes and was going to appear before the judge, she was terrified, sure that she would forget everything that she learned. The first question asked of her by the judge put her at ease. “Do you know the name of the President?”

Her face lit up, she smiled and proclaimed, Yes…Sam Lipman!

I then began to muse about my father, Cantor David Chasman. After his death, in going through a folder of his most important and cherished documents, I found an exercise book that contains his homework for his naturalization classes and English language class.

This was a man who read Bialik and Tchernechovsky in Hebrew, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russian, great Yiddish literature, attended the Kiev Conservatory of Music and taught me a Russian translation of an aria in Verdi’s Aida…and he was writing: I go, I went, I will go…. I catch, I caught, I will catch……

One assignment was to compose sentences of words that end in “ less.” 

He wrote:

Abraham Lincoln was childless

An uneducated man is thoughtless

More poor people are homeless

To insult a government officer is lawless

When I arrived in this country I was helpless

He saved that exercise book along with his other most precious documents…. 

And I remember how, on each Election Day he and my mother, dressed perfectly, went early to the polls to exercise their right and responsibility and privilege as citizens of the United States.

And then my musings took me to my Elementary School in Malden Massachusetts, standing in my second-grade classroom, beginning the day each morning with a Salute to the flag.

Placing my hand over my heart and proudly reciting:

I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands
One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

And so my prayer for the United States today is that we all soon are able to recapture the pride and confidence of the second grader, her Aunt Oudie’s countless students, Sam Lipman, and Cantor David Chasman, the confidence In being a citizen of the United States of America, one nation, indivisible, where liberty and justice for all abounds.

Bimheirah b’yameinu – may that day come soon.

 *  *  *

When I shared my prayer with friends now living in Jerusalem, who made Aliyah more than 50 years ago, they confirmed my feelings. The divisiveness that we now feel in the United States, they feel in Israel. Hopes and dreams of immigrants in both countries are being tested. They want to hold on to the vision that brought them to Israel just as we yearn to hold on to the dreams and hopes of our parents and grandparents who came to the land of Freedom, Liberty, and Justice for all.

About the Author
Navah Harlow is the founding director of the Center for Ethics in Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.