I was poking about, looking for a Chanukah poem to feature in honor of the holiday (and Happy Chanukah, Dear Readers), when I came across a poem that speaks a bit to the holiday itself, but even more to our present moment. Please bear with me as I come around to the poem.
A personage who shall not be named (like the J.K. Rowling villain he seems so desperate to emulate) is voicing repulsive xenophobia, indifferent to the plight of thousands upon thousands of people fleeing violence and seeking no more than what most Americans take for granted: the right to live freely in peace, to pursue happiness. This person, and any who claim to be interested in the Founding Fathers, would do well to recall George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, assuring them—often persecuted in other lands for their religion—of their welcome in America. Herewith, an excerpt:
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington [emphasis mine]
It was the synagogue of this very congregation, the oldest synagogue still standing in America, that inspired Emma Lazarus to write “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” a lovely poem that muses on the plight of exiles and the comforts of shared devotion, and should recall to us all—believers and non-believers alike—the great privilege of living in a country in which freedom of religion is enshrined in law, and the great wisdom, the necessary humanity, of embracing people of goodwill of all faiths, or none at all.
If the name Emma Lazarus sounds familiar, it’s because she’s also the poet whose verses famously adorned a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty:
The New Colossus
Light and not darkness upon our paths, friends.
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