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This Famous Jewish Musician Left a Stunning Legacy

This Famous Jewish Musician Left a Stunning Legacy

Irving Berlin at the piano surrounded by stars from Alexander's Ragtime Band

From the New York County Clerk Archives of November 16, 1911 – the same year that Alexander’s Ragtime Band was first heard ‘round the world – we read the following statement from a deposition requesting that Israel (Isidor) Baline’s name be officially changed to Irving Berlin:

Musical compositions composed by your petitioner have been uniformly successful and have earned vast sums of money. The name has become exceedingly valuable and the name Irving Berlin on a musical composition tends to increase the sales thereof.

To stimulate sales of sheet music more than 100 years ago, Jewish publishers produced sets of song slides requiring a piano player (the “professor”), a projectionist, and a vocalist, who would do the hard sell. Sometimes, the latter was a stooge planted in storefront nickelodeons, who attempted to whip up audience participation “spontaneously” between one-reelers. Often these stooges were boys lured from Lower East Side synagogue choirs. George Jessel, Al Jolson, and Fanny Brice began their careers as stooges. To place some of his songs, songwriter Harry Von Tilzer hired the young Irving Berlin as a stooge at Tony Pastor’s restaurant. All this took place during the era when feature-length films were not common and when any kind of film was regarded as very low-class.

With the help of stooges and projected slides, immigrants were both entertained and educated, a kind of early Berlitz School for learning English. Young mothers with nursing babies would spend entire afternoons hearing songs repeated so many times that they eventually understood and learned the English words. To establish the ethnicity of “Yinglish” songs – popular songs based on Jewish characters – a Yiddish tune often would be quoted, as, for example, in this well-known melody by Abraham Goldfaden, the founder of the Yiddish theater.

An Irving Berlin song from 1909, “Yiddle on Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime” not only starts with that same tune, but also is illustrated with slides that Berlin staged himself.

The petition for a name-change cited Berlin’s birthplace as way out west in Tabulsk, Siberia. Other sources state that he was born in Tyumen, Siberia. These locations are doubtful, however, because they would have placed the Baline family far east of the Pale of Settlement. The Map Division of the New York Public Library confirms there is no place called Tabulsk. In fact, when Berlin applied for American citizenship in 1915, he listed as his birthplace Mohilev, near Minsk.

Was Berlin composing romantic myths about his origins? Was he too preoccupied with re-inventing himself while being overprotective of his humble beginnings?

Whatever Berlin’s birthplace, we can attach deep personal significance to a number he wrote for Fanny Brice, “Don’t Send Me Back to Petrograd,” about the 1924 American quota law for the Music Box Revue of 1925. This National Origins Act effectively barred eastern Europeans from immigrating to the U.S. during World War II and was not repealed until 1965. The singer pleads, “Now that I’m over here, they won’t let me stay…. Please don’t send me away,” a sentiment that certainly resonates in our own day.

Here again, Berlin quotes the Goldfaden tune, but this time it is less blatant, buried in the bottom of the accompaniment. At the end, he turns it major, quoting from “The Star Spangled Banner” along the way – a prescient citation, since the song did not officially become our national anthem until 1931. And though Berlin had already composed “God Bless America,” his own patriotic contribution to the American songbook back in 1918, he did not publish it until 1938. By then, it didn’t really matter where he came from – everyone certainly knew his name.

This essay is adapted from Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish: A Lecture-Entertainment, created by composer and author Jack Gottlieb, z’l, and based on his book of the same name.

Cantor Joshua Breitzer has served Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY since 2011. He is on the faculty at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is a vice president of the American Conference of Cantors. Cantor Breitzer also is an officer of The Theophilous Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the musical and scholarly legacy of Jack Gottlieb.


Cantor Joshua Breitzer

Published: 5/23/2017

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