Irving Berlin’s Contribution to America’s Nondenominational Civil Religion

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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewry, Civil religion, Irving Berlin, Musical theater, Popular music

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict