The Schmear Chronicles


Irving Berlin: The Jew Crush

Remembering the legendary tunesmith, who would have been 129 this week

As we know, some of the most beloved Christmas songs were written by MOTs. Singer and songwriter, Irving Berlin was one of them, (you may have heard of the holiday tune “White Christmas.”) Born Israel Isidore Baline in Russia in 1888, the iconic Jewish composer and lyricist arrived in the U.S. with his family when he was five-years-old. By the time he was 30, he was considered a music legend. On Thursday, Berlin would have celebrated his 129th birthday — this one goes out to you Mr. Berlin.

Seven reasons we have a Jew crush on Irving Berlin:

1. The American Dream. Before he was dreaming of a white Christmas, Berlin was dreaming of getting to a better place. Starting with nothing, (he recalled witnessing his house burn to the ground in Tolochin when he was a child), Berlin worked his way into the music scene and made a name for himself that to this day holds an inimitable space in art.

2. Prolific. Berlin wrote hundreds of songs before he was 30-years-old, and an estimated 1,5000 songs over his 60 year career. Among his canon of material were scores for 19 Braodway shows and 18 Hollywood films. Not to mention his songs were nominated eight times for Academy Awards.

3. Young crooner. At age 12, when most Jewish boys are preparing to chant for their Bar Mitzvahs, Berlin was singing in front of strangers— for pay. Getting a job at a young age, Berlin and following in his father’s footsteps as a singer, Berlin sang at the saloons on the Bowery in Lower Manhattan.

4. What can I sing you? When he turned 18, Berlin got a gig as a singing water at the Pelham Café in Chinatown. Can you imagine ordering a bowl of matzoh ball soup from the guy who wrote “God Bless America?”

5. Tin Pan Alley/Broadway. Berlin rose as a singer first in Tin Pan Alley and then on Broadway. By the time he was 23 he was a celebrity and became the featured performer at fellow MOT, Oscar Hammerstein’s vaudeville house.

6. Dance craze. There might be a rumor going around that MOTs can only dance the horah, but with or without meaning to, Berlin started a phenomenon in the world of artistic movement.  After writing one of his earlier hits, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the world famous song reignited the dormant culture of the ragtime era, sparking a dance craze.

7. Patriotic passion. As World War I broke out, Berlin felt it his duty to contribute and show support for his country. He wrote “For Your Country and My Country,” being quoted in a the book, “Irving Berlin and Ragtime America” saying, “We must speak with the sword not the pen to show our appreciation to America for opening up her heart and welcoming every immigrant group,” (a statement that rings with chilling profundity in these times). In the same vein, he co-wrote the song, “Let’s All Be Americans Now,” aimed at ending ethnic conflict. When Berlin was drafted for the war, he wrote an all-soldier musical revue called, “Yip Yap Yaphank,” for which he wrote “God Bless America.”

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