Jew who composed everything from ‘White Christmas’ to ‘God Bless America’

“What could be stranger than a Jew out of the shtetl and the Lower East Side creating what is arguably the most influential Christmas song of all time?”

Irving Berlin composed ‘God Bless America.’ (Pictured: Members of the US House of sing ‘God Bless America’ at the US Capitol on September 11, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Irving Berlin composed ‘God Bless America.’ (Pictured: Members of the US House of sing ‘God Bless America’ at the US Capitol on September 11, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Born at the end of the 19th century in Siberia, Israel Beilin or Izzy Baline, but best known as Irving Berlin, lived to be 101 – and during his long life composed some of the most enduring contributions to the American songbook. A Jewish Jew, he universalized Christmas with “White Christmas” and Easter with “Easter Parade” so that such holidays were open to all.
As the author of the musical journey through the 20th century Irving Berlin: New York Genius, James Kaplan, points out: “What could be stranger than a Jew out of the shtetl and the Lower East Side creating what is arguably the most influential Christmas song of all time?”
A tough Yiddish-speaking street kid, his father died when he was 13. He started out as a seller of the New York Journal “on the hard streets of the Bowery,” then fitted bawdy lyrics to popular songs and performed them in saloons such as The Bucket of Blood and The Flea Bag. He then worked for music publisher Harry Von Tilzer, born Aaron Gumbinsky, and writer of “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.”
Berlin easily caught the Tin Pan Alley bug and started to compose first his own songs and then write accompanying lyrics. An early composition, “My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” sold 300,000 copies. At 21, as the writer of “Alexander's Ragtime Band,” which sold two million sheet copies, he had made enough money to move his impoverished family from the Lower East Side to the Bronx. 
Berlin became an overnight sensation, playing and singing his own compositions in vaudeville theaters. A self-taught musician, his lyrics appealed directly to his eager audience, full of sexual innuendo while simultaneously maintaining the propriety of the age. When his first wife died of pneumonia after a few months of marriage, he coped with his grief by writing “When I Lost You,” which became an instant hit.
In 1914, he wrote an anti-war song, “Stay Down Where You Belong.” One line read “making butchers out of brothers.” This changed when the US entered the First World War in 1917 and he was called up. His “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” made him very popular with the ordinary soldier. 
Berlin earned the disapproval of his Catholic tycoon father-in-law simply because he was a Jew made good. His second wife, Ellin, was thus cut out of her $10 million inheritance. A baby followed – and so did a song that expressed his joy – “Nothing but Blue Skies from Now On” – and made famous by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
As James Kaplan describes in rapturous detail how the hits kept coming: “How Deep is the Ocean” and “Say It Isn't So.” When talkies came on the scene, Berlin wrote songs for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers such as “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.”
Berlin confronted white racism in the revue “As Thousands Cheer,” when act two opened with a lament from Ethel Waters of Harlem's Cotton Club about the lynching of her husband “by a frenzied mob.” The day after Kristallnacht, “the Songbird of the South,” Kate Smith, sang Berlin's “God Bless America” on her weekly broadcast. Berlin refused to take a penny for this rebuke to Nazism and put all the royalties into a trust fund for worthy causes. Indeed it was regarded as almost a rival to the “Star Spangled Banner” – both Democrats and Republicans sang it at their national conventions in 1940.
Berlin's wartime songs such as “White Christmas” and “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow” were designed to bolster spirits in the darkest of times. He entertained the troops and performed in This is the Army – meeting the future Queen Elizabeth after a performance at the London Palladium.
After the war and nearing 60, Berlin showed his competitors that he was not finished yet with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” and “Doing What Comes Naturally.” He then penned “We're a Couple of Swells” for Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.
Yet the 1960s was fast approaching and the world was changing. Rock 'n' Roll was no mere passing fad nor were the big musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
This book is not a dissection of Berlin and his Jewishness, even so, how did Irving Berlin, this acculturated all-American Jewish patriot, greet the rise of Israel in 1948? Kaplan doesn't say, but he discovered that Berlin at 71 in 1959, had written the lyrics; “Israel, With outstretched arms, You gave hope to your homeless people” – and then seemed to drop the project.
On his 100th birthday, the good and the great in show business paid homage at a concert at Carnegie Hall. He had outlived Elvis and John Lennon.
This book celebrates not only the life of this remarkable songwriter, Irving Berlin, but it also parades the dramatis personae of the makers of modern music who march across the pages of this entertaining work – many of them first-generation American Jews. James Kaplan has written a highly readable book, lovers of popular music will enjoy it enormously.
 
The writer is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.
IRVING BERLIN: NEW YORK GENIUS
By James Kaplan
Published by Yale University Press
384 pages; $26