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'Bless and keep the czar — far away from us!'

The sun shines on the Statue of Liberty in New York on Jan. 12, 2019.
The sun shines on the Statue of Liberty in New York on Jan. 12, 2019. (JOHANNES EISELE / AFP/Getty Images)

“Rabbi, rabbi,” asks the bewildered parishioner, “is there a blessing for the Czar?”

“Yes, my son,” the rabbi responds: “God bless and keep the Czar — far away from us!”

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The exchange, part of the opening number in the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof” occurs in a tiny Yiddish village, a shtetl, Anatevka, in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

But the Czar comes. A pogrom forces the entire shtetl to flee, and the musical ends as the villagers, with whatever belongings they could carry, exit stage left mournfully chanting “Anatevka, Anatevka.” We may suppose that many find their way to America.

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The Republicans are punishing Congressman Steve Smith over racists comments, but they created the hateful environment permeating the country by standing by as party leader President Donald J. Trump has run amok for months with racists insults.

My wife and I saw “Fiddler” recently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at the tip of Manhattan. We have seen it on stage and in film many times. But this production was entirely in Yiddish and thus especially authentic. One needn’t accept uncritically “Fiddler’s” celebration of Jewish tradition to be profoundly moved by it, as was I.

The musical fed my outrage at my country’s current anti-immigrant hostility. And it brought home the truth that the folks the actors portrayed were my ancestors — my people. The same people George Washington promised in a letter written to a small Hebrew congregation in Newport, R.I., that the United States of America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Before the performance, Sheila and I had dinner at a nearby restaurant. We were seated outside. Not a half mile offshore in the Hudson — close enough, it seemed, to grasp — stood the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of our country’s welcome to immigrants.

FILE- In this circa 1950 photo shows a bronze plaque of the poem by Poet Emma Lazurus on Statue of Liberty in New York. In 1903, the poem was engraved on the bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level. Senior White House aide Stephen Miller told reporters Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, that the poem written by Emma Lazarus about the "huddled masses" is not part of the original Statue of Liberty. Miller says the Statue of Liberty is a "symbol of American liberty lighting the world" and suggested the statue had little to do with immigrants. (AP Photo/File)
FILE- In this circa 1950 photo shows a bronze plaque of the poem by Poet Emma Lazurus on Statue of Liberty in New York. In 1903, the poem was engraved on the bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level. Senior White House aide Stephen Miller told reporters Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, that the poem written by Emma Lazarus about the "huddled masses" is not part of the original Statue of Liberty. Miller says the Statue of Liberty is a "symbol of American liberty lighting the world" and suggested the statue had little to do with immigrants. (AP Photo/File) (AP)

I could almost hear the beautiful words of poet Emma Lazarus etched inside the statue’s pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

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How perfect a beacon to my forebears who were driven from their “Anatevkas.”

How ironic that it should raise a welcoming torch in New York harbor while we build barriers and use tear gas along our southern border, leaving unheeded the warning of Ronald Reagan, the most revered Republican president since Lincoln: “If we ever closed the door to new Americans,” he said, “our leadership role in the world would soon be lost.”

Thanks to the midterms, Democrats command a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. President Donald Trump, alas, is with us still. So, too, is his malevolent view of migrants, who seek only to live and work in our country and, perhaps, become our fellow citizens one day.

Trump immigration
(Scott Stantis)

The evidence of his xenophobia grows daily. Mexican “rapists” bring drugs and crime, he says; build the wall; ban Muslims; abolish birthright citizenship; deport the “Dreamers”; separate migrant children from their families; dispatch troops to the border; shut down government to force Congress to fund the wall.

These policies are lawless, bigoted, ignorant and cruel.

Relentless media coverage of the administration’s immigration policy has a numbing effect. In my case, however, a couple of otherwise unremarkable phenomena — a trip to that theater in New York and a framed certificate on the wall of my study — keep alive my disgust at that policy and bring me closer to my immigrant roots.

All four of my grandparents came to America from Eastern Europe and the Baltic region. I don’t know if all of them became citizens, but I have proof that one did. A framed copy of the “Certificate of Naturalization” of my paternal grandfather, Louis Sachs, dated Oct. 7, 1890, hangs on the wall of my study, 10 feet away from where I sit, writing this.

President Donald Trump pledged "strong action today" on immigration.

It records that Louis Sachs renounces forever “all allegiance and fidelity to every foreign Prince, Potentate, State and Sovereignty whatever, and particularly all allegiance and fidelity to [the] Czar of Russia”

I have passed that certificate without pause countless times a day for many years. But it is only recently, as I witness the Trump administration’s hostile view of immigrants, that I pause to study it. It is a reminder of a day when our country was more welcoming. And of the fact that I am only two generations removed from Ellis Island.

I haven’t much hope that President Trump will back off his xenophobic prejudices and recognize that the welcoming policies of the past are what would make us great again. Let us hope that Congress and the courts have the fortitude to stay his hand.

Stephen H. Sachs was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com.

The audience reacts after a man interrupts the "Fiddler on the Roof" performance at the Hippodrome Theatre. (Video courtesy of Rich Scherr)

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