Mendel Letter 28 — School Prayer at PS 104 Bronx

Not PS 104, but it could have been.

May 8, 2021

Dear Mendel,

I don’t know if you remember, but you helped me and my brother resist the public school’s effort to turn us into good little Christian children. You were always incensed that President Eisenhower changed the Pledge of Allegiance, adding the line “under God.” You believed that our religion was no one else’s business. You told us we had to be respectful and stand quietly, but we didn’t have to say their prayers. By the way, I still don’t.

Part of the civilizing mission for young Jewish boys and girls at PS 104 in the Bronx was the weekly “prayer session” at The Assembly. Hundreds of well-scrubbed boys and girls dressed in white shirts, boys with blue ties and blue slacks, girls with blue skirts, and everyone wearing dark leather shoes, lined up in size place by class, marched into the auditorium. Sneakers and jeans were verboten in school in those days and girls were sent home if they wore pants, but I don’t think any family would risk having their children break the iron rules.

The Assembly opened with the “The Pledge” followed by an austere older person, maybe the principal or assistant principal, reading a biblical passage. Then we sang in unison “Bless this house, Oh Lord we pray, Make it safe both night and day” and “My Country T’is of Thee.” Why My Country and not the Star-Spangle Banner? The song has four stanzas but we only sang the first and fourth which goes “Our fathers’ God to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King!” Did you know they stole that song from England where good little boys and girls sing “God save our Queen!”

New York State actually had an official school prayer, but I don’t remember it being recited at PS 104. “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”

My brother and I used to stand at attention with our lips sealed in The Assembly, except one time when I got caught waving my hands to the music and was ordered to after-school detention. I think I was in second grade. That earned me a smack when I got home.

One year the whole prayer thing suddenly ended. I think the school got a new principal, a Jewish man. That may have been it, but it also may have been court decisions outlawing prayer sessions and Bible reading in public schools. Children are still allowed to prayer before a test if they want to, but the school can’t organize it.

You know I am a historian. In the 1840s, abolitionists turned “My Country T’is of Thee” into an anti-slavery song, but we never sang their version. “My country, ’tis of thee, Stronghold of slavery, of thee I sing . . . And every tribe reply, “Glory to God on high”, at Slavery’s fall!”

Your Son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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