A Russian Immigrant and an American Classic


“You swore that you would, so be true to your vow, let’s all be Americans now.”

— Let’s All Be Americans Now, 1917

“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.”

— God Bless America, 1938

Israel Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Tolochin, a city that is now part of Belarus, but was then part of the Russian Empire.

His father, Moses, was a cantor in a synagogue, but when the Tsars issued pogroms against the Russian Jews, Moses and his wife Lena moved their eight children to New York. The year was 1893 and Moses took work at a kosher deli and as an instructor in Hebrew. Lena worked as a midwife and the older children got jobs to help the family as well.

Israel, or ‘Izzy’ as he was known to his friends, sold newspapers and soaked in the music of the theater district. He quit school at age 12, moved out of the home at 14 and soon was working in saloons and, eventually, as a singing waiter in Chinatown. He learned to play the piano, began writing his own songs and, in 1907, sold the rights to his first song, ‘Marie From Sunny Italy’, for 37 cents.

The publisher misread his last name and instead of Baline, printed ‘I. Berlin’ on the sheet music. The career of Irving Berlin was off and running.

Within two years he had his first job as a staff writer and, two years after that, in 1911, he penned the song that would change his life — ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ The song made him a superstar and made his stage name instantly recognizable around the world. But just as the world was recognizing the genius of Irving Berlin, it was also being drawn into the hellish clutches of World War I.

One hundred years ago this Sunday — April 2, 1917 — President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to formally declare war against Germany. The Senate complied on April 4th, and when the House did likewise on April 6th, the U.S. had officially joined the Great War. Berlin was convinced that the music industry needed to do its part for the war effort. He immediately set to writing patriotic songs and, nearing age 30, was drafted into the Army and made a Sergeant.

Among his first wartime hits was ‘For Your Country and My Country’, which included the line ‘It’s your duty and my duty, to speak with the sword not the pen.’

The piece, for which Berlin contributed the lyrics, was particularly moving for him as a Russian immigrant. He also set to writing an all-soldier musical about life in the Army called ‘Yip Yip Yaphank.’ It was a wartime success and is remembered today for the short tune, ‘Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.’

But it was a song that Berlin wrote for Yip Yip Yaphank and then decided not to use in the show that would later cement his place as an American icon. The tune just didn’t have a good place to go in the show, but Berlin liked it, so he held onto the music. In 1938, America was watching the winds of war swirl in Europe again and Kate Smith, the ‘First Lady of Radio’ was looking for a song to sing at an Armistice Day celebration in honor of the 20th Anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Berlin knew just the song for the occasion — the one he had penned during the war but set aside. He considered the piece to be ode to his adopted country, but also to be a prayer for peace.

As soon as Smith sang ‘God Bless America’ in November of 1938, America fell in love. Both Presidential candidates used it in the 1940 campaign.

It has been sung in movies, at sporting events, even on the steps of the U.S. Capital by the members of Congress following the attacks of September 11th. And it was inspired 100 years ago by the patriotic stirrings of a Jewish immigrant — a refugee from religious persecution who fell in love with his adopted nation.


David Hejmanowski

Contributing Columnist

David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.

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