He did it without anyone’s help, and without any formal music education. He wrote “God Bless America” in 1918 while serving in the Army. But it didn’t lead to anything. He set it aside for 20 years and returned to it only in 1938, after Hitler rose to power. Kate Smith recorded it. The rest was history. The song became America’s unofficial national anthem, along with “America the Beautiful.”
That would have been enough success for any musical mortal. But this man was writing for the ages. He also went on to write one of the most popular songs of all time, “White Christmas.”
And here’s the most remarkable part of his story. The man who gave us “God Bless America” was not born in America; he was born in Russia. The man who gave us “White Christmas” was not a Christian; he was Jewish.
If you made his life story into a movie, critics would say it was too improbable. It is that American.
Irving Berlin came to America like so many before him, seeking refuge from religious persecution. He was born Israel Beilin, on May 11, 1888, one of eight children born near Mogilev in what is now the Republic of Belarus. His father, a cantor in a synagogue, uprooted his family after their village was destroyed in a violent anti-Semitic pogrom.
His family settled in New York City in 1893. According to his biographer Laurence Bergreen, as an adult Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia except for one: his father “lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes.”
But that was not the last tragedy to befall young Irving. His early life had more sad stories than the Old Testament, none worse than the loss of his father when he was eight.
With few other options available, the young man took to the streets of New York to help support his family. To say those streets were tough would be an understatement. A poverty the likes of which poor people in America today would not even recognize gripped the Lower East Side of New York, the neighborhood where young Irving lived.
Rudyard Kipling thought it worse than anything he’d seen in the slums of Bombay, the poverty he witnessed when he visited the tenements of the Lower East Side. But he was impressed by the Jewish families in particular, noting the young immigrant boys saluting the Stars and Stripes. Kipling wrote, “For these immigrant Jews are a race that survives and thrives against all odds and flags.” Which proves the point that is often lost on us today: You can have very little in material wealth but still not be poor.
By the time he was 20, Berlin had stumbled by accident upon his life’s work. He took a job as a waiter in Chinatown, where he discovered that his tips skyrocketed when he hummed various songs of the day. Singing cover tunes a capella at dinner tables soon turned into a stint at songwriting. He collaborated with friends at first, and soon got his break as a staff writer with a music-publishing house in New York.
His meteoric rise as a songwriter in Tin Pan Alley and then on Broadway started in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which would become a hit by various artists, including Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. The song topped the charts when Bing Crosby recorded it.
But ragtime music was not where Berlin’s heart was. He wanted to create his own version of American music, one that embraced and appealed to the diversity and richness of his adopted nation, so that his music would be accessible to as many Americans as possible. He described his aspirations:
My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.