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The Immigrant Who Wrote “God Bless America”

January 16, 2012

Irving Berlin[1] was born in Russia in 1888, at the end of the 19thcentury when Jewish families like his were beaten up and beaten down, living with no more security than, say, a fiddler on the roof. Irving Berlin said that his only memory of Russia was of lying on a blanket in the snow, watching Russian soldiers burn his family’s house to the ground. Irving Berlin with his parents and siblings had to leave, but had to move from town to town in secret (it was against the Czar’s law to leave Russia without permission).

American Liberty

Berlin's 40 simple words remind us that freedom and the pursuit of happiness do not occur in every national setting.

They came to New York City and passed through Ellis Island, where they saw the Statue of Liberty, and started over again in a land of liberty and justice for all.

Years later Irving Berlin said that the song was inspired by his mother, who would say “God bless America” often, to indicate that, without America, her family would have had no place to go.” Richard Corliss writes that “God Bless America” is “a simple plea for divine protection in a dark time.”

It has earned millions for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to whom Berlin assigned all royalties. In the days following 9/11 Celine Dion, a Canadian, recorded “God Bless America” and it became a number one hit, just as it was 1938 when it was first recorded by Kate Smith. Short and to the point, it is our unofficial national anthem in only 40 words:

God bless America, land that I love.

Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above.

From the mountains, to the prairies, to the ocean white with foam;

God bless America, my home sweet home.

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