Born Israel Isidore Beilin in what is today Belarus, Irving Berlin and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews that decided they preferred the uncertainties of life in Gilded Age America to getting their houses burned down by drunk Cossacks every other weekend.
The Beilins found life on the Lower East Side hard, with their father unable to find work as a temple cantor (the “lead vocal” in Jewish religious music) and dying when Irving was only thirteen. Poorly educated and barely employable, Irving found the only way he could support his mother and seven siblings was to use the vocal skills he’d inherited from his father in the streets and saloons of the Bowery.
The teenage singer’s jazzy, patriotic style was instantly popular among all the races and classes of the Lower East Side, with one Irish bar owner describing him as “the Yiddish Yankee Doodle.”
Few musicians have equaled Berlin’s subsequent meteoric rise to fame or his enduring impact on national music, being responsible for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and 1938’s Armistice Day commemoration “God Bless America.”