Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Life

Gershwinning on All Fronts: An American Jewish Lyricist in Excelsis

The distressing news about a battle over royalties between George and Ira Gershwin’s heirs coincides with a no less unexpected report that Beach Boy Brian Wilson has been allowed by the Gershwin Estate to complete songs left unfinished by George when he died of a brain tumor at age 38 in 1937.

Ira, who survived into his anecdotage, dying in 1983 at age 86, is being honored with a new volume in Library of America’s Poets Project, alongside Jewish modernists Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Zukofsky, Karl Shapiro and Samuel Menashe.

Ira Gershwin (born Israel Gershowitz on the Lower East Side) rates this company since, despite his assimilated, even insular approach to Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship (“Even if Roumania/ Wants to fight Albania./ I’m not upset,” from “I Can’t Be Bothered Now”) there is a recurring awareness of the Old Country in his lyrics. His parents, Moishe and Rosa, emigrated from Russia, and Ira’s patter song “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians),” written for Danny Kaye (Born David Kaminsky to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn) is a frenetic list of Russian composers, mentioned alongside Russian Jews (Joseph Rumshinsky and Dimitri Tiomkin) and even Polish Jews (Leopold Godowsky).

Integrating Jews in the New World was also evident in another song, “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha” in which brother George’s music likewise fades out to quasi-nonexistence to better pay tribute to the “Temp’rmental Oriental Gentlemen,” the fiddlers Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel and Sascha Jacobsen (the latter being the LA Philharmonic’s concertmaster). And it’s also evident in “Freud and Jung and Adler” whose repeated names add up, according to the singing psychiatrists, to “Six sex psychos, we!” who are available “If you’re really not certain as to which your/ sex is.”

Ultimately, Ira’s Yiddishe kop is expressed in his glowing esteem for Jewish intellectual achievement, in “The Economic Situation,” ranking Benjamin Disraeli with the Ancient Greeks: “Questions that Plato and Socrates/ And Disraeli wouldn’t dare discuss.” He was a brilliant wordsmith and thoroughly deserves this brilliantly new presentation by editor Robert Kimball.

Watch the great chanteuse Frances Faye (born Frances Cohen) sing Ira Gershwin classics. The lower one introduced by Hugh Hefner.

Watch Faye and Mel Tormé (born in Chicago to a Russian Jewish family) sing Gershwin.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.