(Page 2 of 2)
The confusion and masking, whether in blackface or Jewface, might be explained by the immigrant’s anxiety to succeed and avoid persecution. This is outlined in a 1913 Berlin tune, “Abie Sings an Irish Song,” in which a Jewish clothes merchant in an Irish neighborhood learns Irish melodies in order to attract clientele, as well as defuse potential pogroms: “Any time an Irishman comes in to pick a bone / If he looks at Abie and hollers in an angry tone / ‘I would like to wrestle with a Levi or a Cohn’ / Abie sings an Irish song.” As Magee notes, Berlin retained the same concept for an unproduced 1939 stage revue about holidays in which St. Patrick’s Day would be represented by performers of Irish song and dance who argue in “pure, unadulterated Yiddish” about their earnings.
As a masked celebrant of Christian holidays, Berlin blended his true identity with the ideals of the wider American public. The composer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” also wrote “He’s a rag picker” about “Mr. Moses,” an itinerant schmatte purchaser who calls out the familiar Lower East Side street cry “Any rags?” but is also a pianist, melding a lower-class Jewish job and a then-trendy genre of music.
Origins remained a central concern for Berlin in his 1915 vaudeville song “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars,” about Old Man Rosenthal, a salesman who refuses to die because a Jewish colleague is in debt to him. Introduced by Belle Baker, born Bella Becker to a Russian Jewish family, the song became a hit. More soberly, in 1924 Berlin wrote “Don’t Send Me Back to Petrograd” for Fanny Brice in response to the Immigration Act of 1924, a legislative initiative of the United States to limit the entry of Eastern and Southern Europeans, among others. Returning to the comic genre, “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” written for the Ritz Brothers in the 1937 Hollywood musical “On the Avenue,” spoofs America’s ultra-famous Jewish immigrant Albert Einstein. The song states that although the subject “attracted some attention / when he found the fourth dimension,” he is nonetheless dismissed for lack of rhythm, possibly an allusion to Einstein’s notoriously mediocre violin playing (One of Einstein’s chamber music partners famously complained of him, “He can’t count!”). Even the ostensibly nonethnic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” heard in the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film “Follow the Fleet,” may have covert Jewish-related allusions in its ominous warnings of “troubles ahead” and its expression of a resolve to dance “before the fiddlers have fled.” With European fascism growing — a year later, the Polish Jewish violinist Bronisław Huberman would indeed flee from his adopted home of Vienna — Berlin prefigured a tragedy that many observers already saw as inevitable.
Thanks to Magee and Sears as well as to other scholars, Irving Berlin’s ever-trenchant Jewish inspiration continues to be revealed as a major aspect of his mighty achievement.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.