03 July 2010

Berlin on Shabbat

We sang Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" to close the service last night, one of my favorite Shabbatot of the year.  

I love it because it's usually a very mellow Shabbat--many people are out of town and those who show up do so with a kind of pride and sincerity of being the "only ones in town" that adds both a gravity and sense of celebration to the moment.  I also love it because on long holiday weekends that complicate our understanding of what it means to be both Jewish and American, we have an opportunity to meld the two ideas together--our Jewishness and our patriotism, which, through Irving Berlin, reaches a kind legitimization since he wrote proudly from such Jewish place.

He wrote the song in 1918 while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, and in the wikipedia article on the song, the music critic Jody Rosen is credited with noting that a "1906 Jewish dialect novelty song, 'When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band', contains a six-note fragment that is 'instantly recognizable as the opening strains of "God Bless America"'. He interprets this as an example of Berlin's 'habit of interpolating bits of half-remembered songs into his own numbers.'  Berlin, born Israel Baline, had himself written several Jewish-themed novelty tunes.

I also love closing with it because nearly every Friday evening at CBE are two members who served our country with distinction in the Second World War and they always express deep appreciation for a patriotic number to close out our service.

My dad, who also served in the Second World War and would be 86 this coming week, didn't have much to say about my Jewish education, I'll admit.  His loyalties to our people were tenuous and he tended to find their greatest realization, like many of his generation, through popular culture.  At the time he died in 1983, I was on a path to service--though in politics, not religion--and so each Fourth of July I wonder about his wonder and whether it would be amused, confused or proud.  He could speak in all those languages when we had our father-son moments; and so it's with a nod to his more amused side that each year on the Shabbat of Independence Day Weekend or Thanksgiving, we add a little Irving Berlin to Shabbos joy.

1 comment:

Larry Kaufman said...

At Beth Emet, we also ended with God Bless America, which the cantor reminded us was written by a cantor's son. And on Shabbat morning, we tried to sing Mi Camocha to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner, but it didn't quite work -- although I think GBA might have!