“The floor of the Baline hut-home was of hard black dirt. Outside, the squiggly streets of Tyumen were either mud or dust according to the season. Lining the squiggles were horrid wooden huts. Sometimes wild pigs would rage into town and bite children to death…” (Ian Whitcomb)
All little Israel Baline apparently remembered of his life in Tyumen – a shtetl deep in the center of the Pale – was the night he lay on a blanket by the side of the road and watched his house burn to the ground, thanks to the Cossacks.
It was Tsar Nicholas who revived the pogroms, one of his many vicious policies which led not only to revolution, but to the emigration of nearly 2 million Jews, most to the United States.
Which is where the Balines got to by the time Israel was five. His father, a cantor, could not find work in a synagogue and worked instead in a Kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons at night to pay the rent on a windowless basement flat on the lower East Side. But it was all too much for him – he died three years after reaching America.
So Israel, at eight, joined the family workforce. His mother brought in a little as a midwife, his sisters wrapped cigars, his brother worked in a sweatshop and he sold newspapers. When he was a teenager he decided he was a drain on his family and left home, living on the streets.
Ultimately, he started using a talent he had inherited from his father – he sang in saloons for pennies. He became a singing waiter, learned to play the piano and tried his hand at writing songs.
He began to know people, musicians and writers, and it was then that he changed his name and Israel Baline became Irving Berlin.
By the time he was 23, he had written ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ and by the time he was 24 he was famous. He went on to write more than 1,500 songs, 19 Broadway shows and scores for 18 movies. He gave us ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘White Christmas,’ ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ and ‘God Bless America.’
He gave every American something to sing. He lived nearly all of the 20th century, dying in 1989 at the age of 101. Happy 123d to Irving Berlin.