A Jewish Immigrant Wrote This Quintessential American Song – Kveller
Skip to Content Skip to Footer


A Jewish Immigrant Wrote This Quintessential American Song

Irving Berlin, who wrote "God Bless America" in 1918, said that it's "not a patriotic song."

Irving Berlin

via Library of Congress and Canva

Even though it’s the epitome of a nationalist tune to some, “God Bless America,” according to Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin, is “not a patriotic song.”

Berlin, who was born in imperial Russia, the son of a cantor, and who arrived to America as a kid, became the writer of so many songs from the Great American Songbook, including, yes, “God Bless America.”

It’s funny retracing the history of this song, which you can read about in Sheryl Kaskowitz’s “God Bless America,” because it all started quite innocently in an attempt to raise money for a Long Island military camp. The song was written by Berlin, born Israel Beillin, while he was a soldier in New York to raise funds for Camp Upton, where he was stationed. The tune, however, wasn’t included in the final version of his 1918 “Yip Yip Yaphank,” a musical revue about a tired soldier that made it to Broadway — instead remaining in his drawer for two decades.

The song finally made it to the light in 1938 on the radio show of popular singer Kate Smith for Armistice Day. It was, for Berlin and Smith, an anti-war song. The original 1918 lyrics read, “To the right with the light from above,” but Berlin changed them to “through the night” because he didn’t want it to seem like a reference to right-wing politics. He also changed a lyric which called for making America “victorious.”

Americans were meant to feel lucky to be far away from where “storm clouds were gathering overseas.” Yet as the song also premiered the day after Kristallnacht, its meaning quickly changed as the country joined World War II.

From the beginning, “God Bless America” was a Rorschach test of a song. Many know that Woody Guthrie didn’t like it for what he felt was saccharine patriotism, writing “This Land Is Your Land” in protest. Yet the song also received antisemitic hate and was boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan.

“God Bless America” has been about triumphing over our enemies, but it’s also been a Civil Rights anthem. It was the song that united us after 9/11, sung by Celine Dion. It’s also a song for sports lovers across the nation, sung in stadiums brimming with every type of American. It’s been played in political rallies of the right and the left, at the Capitol, even in space (and in Yiddish.)

As I deal with my own complex feelings about America at a time laden with heartbreaking Supreme Court decisions, terrifying and infuriating anti-trans legislation and constant attacks on reproductive freedom and our children’s freedom to be safe in their classrooms and read the books they deserve, I find some comfort in this song, written about the idea of what America could be.

It’s strange to think that this song, which feels in a sense, deeply Christian, was written by a Jewish immigrant — the same Jewish immigrant who wrote “White Christmas.” Jews have a complex relationship with God, and many don’t assert any kind of belief in a higher power to be a crucial part of Jewish communal life. Many people go to synagogue services regularly while still debating, or knowing that they don’t believe in, God. Yet we still invoke the idea of this higher power, as a reminder of our imperative to make the world a better place, to act more justly. In this sense, “God Bless America” is not about waiting for divine intervention. It’s about knowing that the divine is within us. In that sense, “stand beside her and guide her” is about our imperative to make America a more just place. Maybe swearing allegiance to a “land that’s free” is more about our imperative to ensure that freedom.

Like many immigrants, it’s hard for me to reconcile this beautiful land of opportunity with the rough, unaccepting political terrain we face now. America is my refuge, my home sweet home, the land where I raise my family, where Jewish communal life can be so beautiful and revitalizing, where I can love my neighbors. The storm clouds seem to be here, though, gathered in this land as they have throughout our nation’s history. They have been, and still are, those who want to tell us that America is only the land for a certain type of people.

Irving Berlin had a deep understanding of what it meant to write songs for everyone — for the white Christian majority, yes, but also songs that are so universal they can touch all of our hearts. In some ways, it almost seems subversive to sing this song in certain spaces, knowing that it was written by a Jew. Berlin called it “an expression of gratitude for what this country has done for its citizens, of what home really means.”

I am grateful for all the things that make this country home, that make me proud to be American, like Berlin and his songs.


Skip to Banner / Top Skip to Content