(No. 3/2003 - January 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

This article is another in Vitaly Charny's beautifully-illustrated series on noteworthy Jews of Belarus. Previously, Vitaly has written about the Vitebsk art school of Yehuda Pen (which included artist Marc Chagall), Russian court photographer Konstantin Shapiro and Soviet military engineer Boris Shaposhnik, among others.

We thank Vitaly for his efforts in helping us to learn more about the wider social and cultural milieu in which our own ancestors lived.

This article is copyrighted by Vitaly Charny.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders


Irving Berlin: He is American Music!

by Vitaly Charny

In 2002 the USPS issued a 37cent stamp commemorating Irving Berlin. The design of the Berlin stamp shows an Edward Steichen photograph of Berlin and part of the original manuscript for Berlin's God Bless America. {With a life that spanned more than 100 years and a catalogue that boasted over 1000 songs, Irving Berlin epitomized Jerome Kern's famous maxim, that "Irving Berlin has no place in American music - he is American music".

Irving Berlin's origins have been the subject of much mystery and confusion. His parents were Moishe (Moses) Beilin and Liah Lipkin Beilin. Moses Beilin was a shochet (one who prepared meat as prescribed by Jewish religious dietary laws) who was also the cantor in the synagogue. The future American songwriter was born in 1888 as the youngest of eight Beilin children and named Israel. He later observed his birthdays on May 11. In 1888 the Old Style (or Julian) calendar was in use in Russia; there was a twelve-day difference between that and the Western calendar. If it wasn't the Julian calendar that created confusion in transcribing his birthday, it might have been the use of the Jewish calendar. Either way, it is difficult to be certain about his birth date

As a sample of the different opinions the two envelopes shown above with cancellations made on May 11 of 1988 and July 5 of 1988 were prepared to commemorate his 100th Birth Anniversary.

"Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir," by his daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, reveals that his family came from Tolochin in Mogilev guberniya (province of Russian Empire). Her account coincides with a number of records from his brothers and sisters. That's why Irving's draft registration and several other records give his birthplace as Mogilev. Several of Irving's siblings were born in Tolochin but family left town after their house was burned down, possibly torched, according to Edward Jablonski (a biographer of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen) in his book "Irving Berlin: American Troubadour" Vol. 1.

But Irving, who was the youngest child in the family, is frequently said to have been born in Temun, usually identified as Tyumen in Siberia. Some family members believe his father, Moses, a cantor, had taken a temporary position there, but there are no records found. Tymen, located far from the Pale of Settlement, was not much easier a place of destination for a Jewish family than a foreign country. Being a cantor or shochet wasn't a cause for Russian administration to let his family move out of the Pale.

There are several possibilities concerning his birth city. It could be Tyumen or Tumen, any one of several villages in Belarus or Ukraine but not the city in Siberia. However Siberian Tyumen will come first if somebody searches for the location with such name. It also sounds more interesting than a village nobody knows about.

The Beilin family moved to America in 1893 leaving behind in Tolochin the eldest son and married daughter (who later joined them in NY). The father was then forty-one or so (all dates in the story of the Beilins are approximate and suspect) and his mother about thirty-nine. The eldest of children who moved with their parents was 19-year-old Sarah.

In America their passenger arrival list shows the family name was originally BEILIN . It was altered to BALINE in the United States, and eventually Americanized to BERLIN by some, but not all, branches. In Belarus, BEILIN was a common name in the city of Minsk, but not in Mogilev Gubernia. Possibly family roots from Irving's father spanned back to that region. Belarus Jewish genealogy researcher David Fox suggested that Tyumen could be misspelled Igumen, the town located halfway between Tolochin and Minsk.

The Beilins, with six children ranging in age from five to nineteen, and six pieces of luggage (including a featherbed and a samovar), boarded a train and crossed stealthily into Brody near the Austrian border of Galicia. They passed scrutiny in Brody, where Moses judiciously stated as his occupation "shomer " (i.e., "overseer" in a kosher butcher shop). From there, the train would proceed to Poland, then crossing Germany and arrive at their destination, Antwerp, Belgium to board the Rhynland for the 11-day journey to America where they arrived on September 13, 1893.

Having survived to face the ordeal at Ellis Island (where the name Beilin became Baline) they were led by a relative of Leah's, to an address on the Lower East Side on Monroe Street. Somehow, there was a three-room basement apartment waiting for them. When income permitted the family they moved to a slightly airier tenement around the corner on 330 Cherry Street. The Balines' exodus of several weeks or more was at last ended, and a new chapter in their lives was about to begin. From this point the life of Irving Berlin is better known.

At the age of eight, he took to the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City to help support his mother and family after his father had died. In the early 1900s he worked as a singing waiter in many restaurants and started writing songs. In 1907 he published his first song, Marie From Sunny Italy and by 1911 he had his first major international hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Over the next five decades Irving Berlin produced an outpouring of ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes and love songs that defined the American popular song for much of the century. A sampling of just some of the Irving Berlin standards includes: How Deep Is the Ocean?, Blue Skies, White Christmas, Always, Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, There's No Business Like Show Business, Cheek To Cheek, Puttin' On The Ritz, A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody, Heatwave, Easter Parade, and Let's Face The Music And Dance. In addition to writing multiple songs, Berlin composed 19 musicals and the scores of 18 movies. Not bad for a poor immigrant who had only two years of formal schooling and never learned to read or write music!

On Armistice Day 1939, he introduced God Bless America , performed by Kate Smith. This song threatened to replace the national anthem because of its patriotism and popularity.

During World War II, he wrote the musical This is the Army, which raised $10 million for the Army Emergency Relief. His hits in this musical were "This is the Army, Mr. Jones" and "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen." He also wrote other patriotic songs such as "Any Bonds Today?," "Arms for the Love of America," and "Angels of Mercy" for the American Red Cross.

Berlin was married shortly to Dorothy Goetz, who died from typhoid contracted while on their honeymoon in Cuba in 1913 . Then in 1925 he met and fell in love with Ellin Mackay, a journalist and a contributor to the New Yorker . Her millionaire father Clarence Mackay was a devout Catholic and a society figure in New York. He headed the Postal Telegraph Cable Company. Clarence Mackay bitterly opposed the match, refusing to allow his daughter to marry an immigrant Jew. Nevertheless, Berlin and Mackay married in a civil ceremony in 1926 and lived happily together for the rest of their lives. In an ironic footnote, when the stock market crashed in 1929, it was Berlin who financially rescued his father-in-law. The Berlins had three daughters whom they raised as Protestants, thus realizing religious tolerance in the family.

The National Conference of Christians and Jews honored Irving Berlin in 1944 for "advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict." Five years later, he was honored by the New York YMHA as one of "12 outstanding Americans of the Jewish faith." On February 18, 1955, President Eisenhower presented him with a gold medal in recognition of his services in composing many patriotic songs for the country. Earlier, the composer had assigned the copyright to the God Bless America Fund, which has raised millions of dollars for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Berlin's World War I doughboy uniform and many of his original patriotic scores are on display in the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C.

Irving Berlin's birth centennial in 1988 was celebrated world- wide, culminating in an all-star tribute at Carnegie Hall featuring such varied luminaries of the musical world as Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Natalie Cole and Willie Nelson.

On September 22nd 1989, at the age of 101, Berlin died in his sleep in New York City. His legacy of music and charity will always be an important part of American life.

Within hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to show that our government was united and strong. They chose to send their message to the world in a most powerful way. They joined their voices in song.

The song they chose to sing was Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." In the days that followed the tragedy, the song was played and sung numerous times across the country, quickly becoming the country's unofficial national anthem.

The commemorative cover on the picture has a special Fort Belvoir, VA postmark for Irving Berlin,dated October 30, 2002. The Army honored one of its own: a soldier, patriot, and America's songwriter as The Irving Berlin Center was officially dedicated. The AED building is the first and only building worldwide the family has ever allowed to bear Irving Berlin's name. The Irving Berlin Center is the new home of the Army Entertainment Division, a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation program that gives soldiers the opportunity to take the stage as singers, actors, dancers, and musicians as a creative outlet.

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG and Vitaly Charny

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