A Jewish immigrant’s passage from pogroms in Russia to “God Bless America”—written 100 years ago to celebrate his beloved adopted home.
Irving Berlin, born in 1888, was just a child when his family and so many others fled terror directed at Jews in czarist Russia for New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a crowded, dirty, and very poor neighborhood of immigrants, but it allowed a musical boy who had never studied music to grow up and write songs. Israel, his given name, was not a good student in school, but, a cantor’s son, he had a head full of tunes. Early success led to music composed for fellow soldiers during World War I and then music written for Broadway and the movies. It was during World War II that he “took out and polished up a song he’d written long ago.” That song was “God Bless America,” which is still sung and loved—albeit over the initial protests of those who were not pleased that a Jewish immigrant was the composer and lyricist. “White Christmas,” written during World War II, was also immediately taken to heart despite the same racist, anti-Semitic objections. More success and many more great and still popular songs followed. Gardner’s illustrations are colorful and soft-textured, displaying many smiling faces of Berlin as he ages. Musical notes swirl through the pages.
Heartwarming Americana. (author’s note, selected songs, further reading) (Picture book/biography. 6-9)