To some lovers of classical American song, it may seem paradoxical that the Tin Pan Alley genius who created such goyish holiday classics as “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” was born Israel Isidore Beilin in Belarus, Russia, the son of a village cantor. After he and his family fled to New York to escape Cossack pogroms in 1893, the family’s name was changed to Baline at Ellis Island. In 1907 it was altered again to Irving Berlin by Joseph Stern, a sheet music publisher who concocted the composer’s definitive name to sound more snazzily American.
Berlin was eternally grateful to the United States — thus, the stolid, static “God Bless America,” which, despite its success, is oddly uncharacteristic of Berlin’s artistic personality. “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” are hymns of assimilationist allegiance, whereas Berlin was inspired by Yiddishkeit throughout his career. Such is the message of two recent books from Oxford University Press, “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater” by Jeffrey Magee and “The Irving Berlin Reader,” edited by Benjamin Sears.
The latter book reproduces a wry memorial cartoon, “September 22, 1989,” drawn by Edward Sorel after Berlin died at age 101. The drawing shows a young Berlin welcomed to musical heaven by George Gershwin, Franz Schubert and others while the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner glowers.
According to Magee, Berlin started as a teenage waiter and a “sly, bawdy parodist of popular songs” on the Lower East Side and retained parts of this persona even in old age. “The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin,” published by Knopf in 2001, includes Berlin-authored parody lyrics for his own songs, one of which is a 1969 effort that begins: “God Bless America / Land I enjoy / No discussions with Russians / Till they stop sending arms to Hanoi.” Other parodies by the elderly Berlin are testy satires of hippies, Vietnam War protesters and communism, some too racy for a family newspaper.
The degree of anger and bite might surprise fans who relish the smoothly gliding tunes that Berlin wrote for Fred Astaire musicals, but even in this context, Berlin could produce agitated, quasi-epileptic melodies expressing jittery excitement, such as “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” This 1929 tune was lovingly spoofed in Robert Sherwood’s 1936 Broadway success “Idiot’s Delight.”
Berlin coached actor Alfred Lunt, who played the role of a cheap hoofer, which would be filmed in 1939 with Clark Gable as the song-and-dance man. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” reached its frenzied apotheosis in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” in a curiously appropriate version performed by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, respectively, while another extreme Berlin opus, “My Walking Stick,” from 1938, in which a singer claims that without a cane he would “go insane,” found its ideal interpreters in both Louis Armstrong and Leon Redbone.
Berlin also penned novelty numbers, such as the 1910 “My Father Was an Indian.” In this song, Jake Cohen claims to be a Native American to escape being scalped in the Wild West, asserting: “My brother was the president / Of every Ind’an Club, / My sister was a chambermaid, / So that made me a Hebrew.” Magee plausibly links this spoof to Berlin’s later mainstream Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” in which the protagonist follows a trajectory from outsider to social acceptance familiar to assimilated Jewish émigrés. Berlin’s explicit comic Judaica also includes “Sadie Salome,” from 1909, in which a young performer named Sadie Cohen gives a racy onstage performance in the style of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome.” Sadie’s boyfriend, Mose, stands up in the audience and exclaims: “Don’t do that dance, I tell you Sadie / That’s not a bus’ness for a lady! / ‘Most ev’rybody knows / That I’m your loving Mose / Oy, Oy, Oy, Oy/ Where is your clothes?” Berlin’s “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune” from 1910 pays tribute to Felix Mendelssohn, the Jewish-born composer of “Spring Song,” as a blackface comedy dialogue that confuses the words Mendelssohn and “meddlesome.”
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.