Emma Lazarus, an American Patriot

Two Jews acted independently to write a beautiful inspirational song about America’s embrace of the least, last and lost: a wealthy privileged woman from New York, and a generation later, a poor and persecuted Russian immigrant. 

Emma Lazarus was born in 1849, the fourth of seven children, to Moses and Esther Lazarus, both who came from wealthy Sephardic Jewish families with American roots going back to the 1600’s.  Her parents made sure this bright girl was educated by private tutors where she learned French, German and Italian.  Though they sheltered her from outside contacts, her father printed her first book, Poems and Translations, when she was seventeen.  Four years later, she published Admetus and Other Poems.  The latter included a poem, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport”, one of her earliest expressions of her Jewish consciousness.  Admetus caught the eye of Ralph Waldo Emerson and they began a lifelong friendship through correspondence and visits.  Thus began her involvement with the outside world.  She traveled to Europe and met with literary giants Henry James, Robert Browning and Thomas Huxley.  She continued writing both prose and poetry to some critical acclaim, but it was rather romantic and conventional.  

In the 1880’s her writings took on a new vitality.  Violent anti-Semitism broke out in Russia and Germany.  Apparently this godless hate was not confined to Europe.  When a journalist defended the pogroms in Century Magazine, Lazarus replied with “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism” in the next issue.  She began her own crusade for her people and Emma’s writings began a call for Zionism, especially in Songs of a Semite published by American Hebrew in 1882 and a poetic play, The Dance to Death, which celebrated the courage of Jews who were executed in Germany in 1349 for allegedly causing the plague.  Now she was a vociferous self-identified Jew and ardent American.  She organized relief efforts for the immigrants, who were mainly Jews, coming into Ward’s Island. 

“The New Colossus” came out in 1883 for an auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. The old Colossus of course, was the legendary gigantic statue of Apollo at Rhodes. Her sympathy for the laboring poor, women, immigrants and the oppressed was apparent in all her writings, but was most succinctly epitomized in this sonnet.  It certainly reflected her experiences working with the refugees on Ward’s Island.  That poem eventually was struck in bronze and fixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty before its dedication in 1886. 

Emma Lazarus died of cancer in 1887 at the young age of 38, just six months before the birth of Israel Baline in a totally different culture.  Israel was the youngest of five children of Moses Baline, an Orthodox Jewish cantor in Russia.  Often such work was handed down to each generation, so as no surprise, his grandfather and great-grandfather were also cantors.   After the pogroms there resulted in the torching of the Baline home and their imminent capture and execution, the Baline family fled.  Immigrants from Russia and Germany had become so numerous that Ward’s Island couldn’t accommodate the intake.  The government moved the processing of the thousands of immigrants each day in 1891. So in 1893, the Balines arrived on Ellis Island with no money and speaking only Yiddish.  No doubt the Statue of Liberty was one of the first things they saw of America. 

The family settled in a tenement in the lower East side of Manhattan at a time when such overcrowded tenements were becoming a national scandal.  They lived with bad air and no light.  The parents took what jobs they could, his father as a kosher meat inspector, his mother doing laundry. Israel was only five, but he was smart and industrious.  In order to fit into American life, he eventually took the name Irving Berlin.  He sold newspapers and wrote songs. Oddly, he never learned to read music or play comfortably on the white notes of the piano, a reversal of the usual difficulties most people have, for the black keys, or anything other than the key of C major, usually provide the challenge. 

The composer of “God Bless America” obviously felt indebted to his adopted country.  He wrote the music for many successful Broadway musicals, but one, Miss Liberty, a story of the statue, in 1949, turned out to be a dud.  Only one song is still alive today, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.”  The lyrics came from the last few lines of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus”.  It may not directly discuss God or any religion, but it reflects the heart of God as creator and lover of each of us, and America’s responsibility to look out for those in need.  As a side note, her poem had been put to music by Gordon Jenkins three years earlier and included in a Decca record, Manhattan Tower.  Berlin’s version eventually prevailed.  Now, as I read those lyrics, the lives of Berlin and Lazarus have so much greater meaning.  Though it includes those seeking refuge from economic or political problems, the background of this song now makes it more a song of freedom of religion for me. 

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.


Mattie Robertson, God’s humble servant

Sometimes, you find gold as serendipity.  I chanced to chat with a new member of my church, Rachel Griffin, and she told me about her cousin/godmother, Mattie Robertson of Chicago. 

 Mattie was born to good parents who had little formal education, but they valued education and sacrificed for their children.  Mattie was named after her grandmother, Mattie Griffin.  That grandmother insisted all her grandchildren learn and appreciate music.    It stuck with Mattie big time.  She began at age four and she has been celebrated in Chicago as “Choral Director Extraordinaire” by the local CBS affiliate. 

 Though she wasn’t fond of high school, perhaps because she was the only African American student in an otherwise entirely white and predominately Jewish school, she did enjoy playing violin in their orchestra.  When she learned of an opening at DePaul University in Chicago, she auditioned and was accepted without any further entrance requirements. 

 Her talent had been used at her Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church playing for the choir beginning at age 12.  After college, she taught music and directed the girls’ choir at Whitney Young magnet high school in 1975, the year it opened.  She had no prior high school experience, but did have 19 years in the trenches at the primary level.  The Whitney Young school song came from her creative soul.   In addition to teaching, she continued with church music and the Metropolitan Church for 45 years.  Today she is affiliated with and director of the sanctuary choir at First Baptist Congregational Church in Chicago. 

 During this entire time, she arranged music and composed many hymns.   Mattie comes across as a humble person, and like many of the women featured in Sisters in Song, she hasn’t published her hymns outside of her church.  She has no ambition to publish her hymns, and says she needs no recognition.  In my phone interview of her, it’s apparent she seeks only to increase the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Mattie.  However, one contemplative arrangement, “I Must Tell Jesus”, written by Elisha Hoffman, was used in the movie Hardball and published by GIA Publications.  She told me this came about just by chance and being in the right place at the right time.  She was involved in a workshop on hymns in Virginia when her talent was caught by the right person to get her involved in that movie.  The music is available through GIA.   Meanwhile, she continues to arrange and write hymns.  Perhaps someday we may hear some of them without the need to go to Chicago.

A Tribute to Fathers of Hymnwriters (A Day Late)

No hymn writer of any gender works in a vacuum.  All carry the influence of others.  In going through the women I studied to date, there are some fathers who stand out, especially those who encouraged their daughters in an era when daughters were generally encouraged to stay home, marry, and produce children, not hymns or anything involving the intellect. 


Cecil Humphreys Alexander’s father, John, was a demanding officer in the Royal Marines.  Cecil was unsure of his approval, and so hid her writings under the carpet.  But when John Humphreys discovered them when Cecil was only nine, he made a box with a slot on top for her to place her poems.  He set aside Saturday evenings to read them to the family.  Thus, began the writing career of the writer of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “Jesus Calls Us” and “Once in Royal David’s City”. 


Margaret Douroux, composer of “Give Me a Clean Heart” was the daughter of a Baptist pastor who made sure she performed as an accompanist in his church.  Margaret was exposed to many gospel singers at the home, including Mahalia Jackson.  So influential was he that she founded the Reverend Edward A Pleasant Publishing Company.


Frances Havergal’s father was so proud of her intellect that he called her “Little Quicksilver”.  She lived up to his assessment as a linguist, singer, and poet.  So often, we live up or down to the expectations of parents, and no doubt her father was a mighty influence in her life of accomplishment.


Like Margaret Douroux, Mahalia Jackson also began her career singing in her pastor father’s Baptist church beginning at the age of four.  So strong was his influence that she sang only sacred music.


Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher surely influenced the abolitionist fire in Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Yes, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but she also wrote the hymn, “Still, Still With Thee”.


Daniel Webster Whittle was so sure of his daughter, May Whittle Moody’s talent that he collaborated with her in hymn writing.  She often helped him and Dwight Moody in their evangelistic campaigns.  One day in 1893, Daniel wrote the words to “Moment by Moment” and confidently gave them to her to write the music.  It is now a standard.


And Eben Tourjee, a famed music educator, organist and composer was proud of daughter Lizzie’s musical talent.  When she was only seventeen, she wrote the music we most commonly sing to “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy”.  When he became editor of the Methodist hymnal, he made sure to include her tune in the 1878 edition, naming the tune “Wellesley” after the school she attended.


There are many other stories of fathers who encourage and nurture their daughters’ talents, and so many go unknown and uncelebrated.  Let’s celebrate them today.  They know who they are.  Thank you all.

Julie Silver: eye opener, barrier breaker

Interfaith couples often don’t work out.  To complicate things, Julie Silver is married to her wife in a time when same sex marriages still face legal, religious and social hurdles.  Still, Julie Silver is a celebrated contemporary Jewish composer and has put out successful albums of her original Jewish music since 1992.  Some of her songs have become standards in worship and camp settings.


Julie was born into a music loving family and raised in Newton, Massachusetts.  Her experiences at camp, particularly at Camp Pembroke in Massachusetts, really kick-started her interest in creating music.   She saw music as a means to bring people together, lower defenses and face each other more openly.  She recounted how two nuns once helped her climb a mountain in Ireland.  When she told them she sang Jewish songs, they wanted her to sing them.  Climbing that mountain with the nuns brought her closer to her own faith.  She graduated from Clark University in Worcester in 1988.   While in school, she was leading song sessions in the Reform Jewish movement.  After graduation, she worked as a DJ at a Boston radio station.  But she wanted to sing, not just play others’ songs on the radio.  Her first album, in 1992, was Together.  She moved to Santa Monica, California in 1994 to hone her writing, recording, guitar playing, and singing.  She has released several albums, some of which are among the highest selling albums of original Jewish music. Her 2007 CD, It’s Chanukah Time, was the only Jewish album to ever be recognized on Billboard. 


Today, she lives with her wife, an Irish Catholic, and two daughters in Southern California.  As part of the complications of an interfaith relationship, they raise the children in a synagogue, but go to midnight Mass when in New York.  Julie organized an Easter egg hunt for their girls and her wife takes the older girl to Hebrew school.   She told The Philadelphia Gay News in September 2013 “The more we talk about our faith, the more we talk about our separate experiences, the more we have combined experiences, the more our experiences mean to us.”


My favorite song of those I have heard is “Open Up Our Eyes” on her 1995 album Walk With Me. This song was composed at a camp in the summer of 1994.  She can’t get away from her camp roots.  “Open Up Our Eyes” seems especially relevant to someone who has been spending her life opening up others’ eyes.  “God of heaven, God of earth, how did we come to be? . . . Open up our eyes.”   Though Julie is centered in Torah, the lyrics, all in English, could be sung in any Christian denomination as well.

Who or what is O.I. “Cricket” Harrison?

When I wrote Sisters in Song, I just got the tip of the iceberg.  Several Sundays ago, we sang the hymn “Restless Weaver.” The hymnal said it was written by O.I. Cricket Harrison.  I had earlier thought that was a man’s name, but the hymn’s wording and imagery was so . . . feminine.   God as a restless weaver?!  A little looking into this name turned up a woman!  Ola Irene Harrison was a Kansas native, born in 1955 but graduated in 1973 as an Odessa, Texas High School panther.  She is an ordained Disciples minister and has served several churches.   She taught worship and church music at Lexington Theological Seminary and was on the development committee for the Chalice Hymnal and Chalice Praise Hymnal for the Disciples of Christ. She not only wrote hymns, she translated others’ hymns into English.  Apparently, things have fallen through the cracks for this talented and loved musician.  She was hospitalized in September 2013 with several health problems but after release, couldn’t take care of her activities of daily living.  Without insurance or income, she was in a bind. Friends helped her out and a website, www.gofundme.com/6fydeo  was set up to give her some financial support.  It took some doing, but she finally was able to get approved for disability, I assume through Social Security.    She is a prime example of the need for a more comprehensive system for those who, through no fault of their own, are left to their own devices when they don’t have any devices.  In any event, her multiple contributions to hymnody illustrate a woman’s touch, even though her name as printed in the credits don’t give a clue to her gender.