“God Bless America” is a song written by an American Jew, Irving Berlin, an immigrant who came to the United States from Russia at the age of 5. His given name was Israel Baline.
Berlin’s life story was a great American tale: a young, poor immigrant who came to these shores with his family fleeing the oppression of the Old World, seeking freedom and opportunity in what Jews called “di goldene medina” — the golden land.
Blessed with amazing talent and incredible dedication, Berlin went on to become one of America’s greatest songwriters.
We know “God Bless America” as a song, but Berlin actually intended it as prayer for the nation that saved his family and afforded them a new life.
The introductory lyrics of the song, scarcely remembered, make Berlin’s intention clear: “as we raise our voices in solemn prayer.” Berlin, after all, was the son of a cantor, a Jewish prayer leader, and he knew that asking for God’s blessings was a common Jewish practice.
In almost every service, we include the ancient “Blessing of the Cohanim/Priestly Benediction” from the Book of Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, may the Lord show you kindness and grant you peace.”
“God Bless America” is certainly more than a song; it is a heartfelt appeal to the Almighty to care for this mighty yet fragile experiment in human self-governance.
God bless America is a heartfelt appeal that we need more than ever in these incredibly challenging times. We witness so much strife and division. May we have more peace and understanding.
And so, I end with a prayer. Nothing so stirring as the composition from the heart and the hand of an immigrant son of an impoverished Jewish family fleeing oppression, but a prayer that I find moving nonetheless.
From the prayer book “Siddur Sim Shalom,” by the Rabbinical Assembly of America:
Dear God, we ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leader, and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.
“Teach them insights of your Torah that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.
“Creator of all flesh, bless all inhabitants of our country with Your spirit, may citizens of all races and creeds form a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.
“May this land under Your Providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of your prophet: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.’”