Born in the Siberian city of Tyumen in 1888, Israel Baline came to the U.S. at age five, later took the name Irving Berlin, and rose to stardom in 1911 when his composition “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” became a hit. From then on, he was one of most influential songwriters in the U.S., if not in the world. Stephen Whitfield, reviewing James Kaplan’s recent biography of Berlin, considers to what extent, if any, Berlin’s Jewish background influenced his work:
Berlin completely abandoned the practice of Judaism, and Kaplan unsurprisingly finds no significant liturgical influences on Berlin’s music. None of the artists and entertainers who started out in the tenements over a century ago propelled themselves further away from the old neighborhood. Twice married outside the faith, Berlin did not raise his three daughters as Jews.
And yet for those who knew Berlin from the Lower East Side, he was still . . . Izzy; in 1959, a decade after his given name also became the designation of a new state in the Near East, Berlin celebrated with a song entitled “Israel.”
More central to his story, however, is “God Bless America,” which was written in 1918 but was then relegated to his trunk of unreleased songs. . . . Twenty years later, in the fall of 1938, under the ominous shadow of a war that threatened Western civilization itself, he introduced a revised “God Bless America.” It soon became inescapable. . . . [I]n the fall of 1954, when the American Jewish Tercentenary Dinner was held in New York, with President Eisenhower delivering the main address, Berlin highlighted the gala by singing “God Bless America.” For someone who claimed that his earliest memory of tsarist Russia was the shock of a pogrom, the composition of this song seems overdetermined.
That a believer in the nation’s majority faith is unlikely to have written “God Bless America” is evident in the sort of deity that Berlin invokes. In asking that the nation be given divine guidance and protection, the song leaves no one out (except for atheists and agnostics) and certainly doesn’t exclude the Jews. Contrast Berlin’s lyrics with those of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful,” both of which stem from Protestantism and mention the Pilgrims. “God Bless America” betrays no hint of the existence of any particular faith. Its blessings are nondenominational. At least by inference, everyone in Berlin’s America should feel at home; no one should feel an outsider.