The new Reform siddur is a work of art. It arrived on the scene at about the same time I did, and so I was never thrown by its architecture, four readings per page. But this time of year I always have a bone to pick: Back in the collection of hymns, we are provided with “America the Beautiful” as our Fourth of July selection.
Why, I ask you, do we go with that Puritan anthem when there is a perfectly serviceable alternative written by a Russian Jewish immigrant?
Katharine Lee Bates (not to be confused with Kathy Lee Gifford or Kathy Bates) was a Wellesley professor who took a cross-country trip in 1893 to teach a summer session in Colorado Springs, stopping along the way at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was so inspired by what she saw that she wrote a poem, “America the Beautiful,” that was published in The Congregationalist in 1895. As its place of publication suggests, the poem is a celebration of WASP culture. “O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern, impassioned stress/ a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.”
No doubt the pilgrims enjoyed a sense of freedom as they spread out across the country. The Native Americans, not so much.
There is a great verse in the hymn, but it’s the last verse, and so we never get to it:
America, America, God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
What better words to sing on our way to shoot off illegal fireworks?
But, better still, how about this:
God bless America, land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her,
Through the night with the light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America, my home sweet home.
That is an anthem that excludes no race, color, creed or affectional preference. It doesn’t preclude anyone because of their immigration status. All you have to do is call this country “home”—preferably at the top of your lungs, like Kate Smith.
Irving Berlin (born Isador Israel Beilin in Belarus) wrote the first draft of “God Bless America” while he was serving as a U.S. Army private during World War I. The famous first six notes, according to musid critic Jody Rosen, were “instantly recognizable” as coming from a 1906 Jewish dialect novelty song, “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.”
Berlin wound up not using the song in his army musical, Yip Yip Yaphank. By 1938, he felt called to revive it—this time with a new introductory verse: “As storm clouds gather far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.”
The song has a distinguished tradition: Kate Smith kicked off the 1976 Bicentennial by singing it on national TV. It was the final wakeup call for the space shuttle Atlantis.
Woody Guthrie didn’t like it, and wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in protest. And Berlin donated royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, which up until this year might have given some of us pause.
But surely—surely!—the song rates a place in the Reform siddur. If not, just play it through once, and we’ll all catch on.