December 13, 2022
Israel Beilin was born in Imperial Russia on May 11, 1888. He was one of eight children of Lena Lipkin Beilin and Moses Beilin, an itinerant cantor. On September 14,1893, the family arrived at Ellis Island, New York. Young Israel, age five, was put in a holding pen along with his brother and five sisters until immigrant officials considered them fit to enter New York City.
In years to come, Israel could only remember a single thing of his first five years of life, and that was lying by the side of the road and watching his house burn to the ground.
Like so many other Jewish immigrants of that time, the family settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Unable to find work as a cantor, Israel’s father found a job at a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons on the side as a way to support his family. Moses died when Israel was thirteen.
With only a few years of schooling, Israel, age eight, began hawking newspapers. His mother took a job as midwife, his sisters worked wrapping cigars, and his brother assembled shirts in a sweatshop. Each evening returning from work, they would deposit the day’s earned coins into their mother’s outspread apron.
Selling newspapers added only a pittance to the family income, and at thirteen Israel left home and joined the thousands of homeless boys who lived a Dickensian existence of poverty in the Bowery. With no formal education, he drew from his father’s former profession as a cantor and began singing popular songs of the day to customers at the many saloons that lined the Bowery’s streets, hoping they might toss him a few coins in response. At eighteen he got a job as a singing waiter in a Chinatown cafe. While serving drinks, he made up “blue” versions of popular ballads for the enjoyment of the customers. After work, Israel taught himself to play the piano without any formal lessons. When the bar closed, he would improvise tunes for himself at the back of the cafe.
I write about Israel Beilin, a name unknown to most people, because Christmas time is upon us, and everywhere you go—the grocery store, the laundromat, the bank, the mall—you’ll undoubtedly hear “White Christmas”, one of the most recorded songs in history. The song and lyrics were composed by none other than Israel Beilin, whose name, because of a typographical error, appeared in print, while he was still a singing waiter, as Irving Berlin.
The newly named Berlin soon got a job as a song writer in Tin Pan Alley, but for a good part of his career he could not read music, and his piano skills were so limited that he could only play in the key of F Sharp (mostly comprised of the black keys) which required him eventually to use a special piano that could transpose to all keys—his “Buick” as he called it. Nonetheless, at the age of twenty-one, Berlin had his first big hit, the wildly popular “Alexander’s Rag Time Band”, which created a world-wide dance craze.
In his lifetime Berlin wrote hundreds of songs, scores for twenty original Broadway shows, and fifteen Hollywood films with songs garnering eight Academy Award nominations. His songs include “I Love a Piano”, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, “What’ll I Do”, “Always”, “Blue Skies”, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”, “White Christmas”, “Say It Isn’t So”, “Annie Get Your Gun”,
and “God Bless America.”
In “God Bless America,” which was released toward the end of the depression and quickly became a second national anthem, Irving Berlin expressed his deep gratitude for what America had given him. “To me,” said Berlin, “‘God Bless America’ was not just a song but a feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”
“White Christmas” was introduced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn shortly after the United State entered World War II. It expressed the longing, the nostalgia for a peaceful life that for the moment had vanished.
As with so many of Berlin’s songs, “White Christmas” has a directness and simplicity of both words and notes, a certain rightness to them, as if not a single one could or should be changed.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
The composer Jerome Kern once wrote, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manner and life of his time, and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world—simplified, clarified, and glorified”.
And this from an immigrant kid with no formal education, and whose first language was not even English, but Yiddish.
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