Cabaret convention in S.F. honors songwriter Berlin

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Irving Berlin, who died in 1989 at 101, wrote over 1,200 songs, many among the best and best remembered in American popular music.

On Sunday, Feb. 9 at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, his daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, and singer Andrea Marcovicci will honor his memory and his music as the songs of Irving Berlin culminate the second West Coast Cabaret Convention in San Francisco.

The evening will also feature the works of Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Bart Howard, closing with the tribute to Berlin.

Barrett's 1994 book, "Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir," recounts her life with one of America's greatest composers of popular songs, and perhaps its most beloved. In discussing Berlin's Jewishness, Barrett remembers that her father was not religious, but he emphatically identified himself as a Jew.

"Ethically and culturally he was Jewish. Most of his closest friends and associates in show business were Jewish, and there is lots of Jewish influence in his music," she recalls. "His father was a cantor, and he absorbed Jewish music in his younger years."

When Berlin and his Irish Catholic wife, Ellin, discussed how they would raise Mary Ellin, he vetoed the idea of raising her as a Catholic. She was brought up in both a Jewish and Christian tradition and has valued the double heritage all her life.

Early in Berlin's songwriting career, when ethnic humor and songs were accepted staples of the vaudeville stage, he wrote songs that dealt in Jewish stereotypes, like "My Yiddisha Nightingale," "Jake, Jake, the Yiddisher Ball Player" and "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars." But the ethnic stereotypes were not confined to Jews. He also wrote "Latins Know How," "When You Kiss an Italian Girl" and "Oh, How That German Could Love."

Any discussion of Berlin's Jewish legacy must bring up the irony of his authorship of "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," the most popular American songs about the two most important Christian holidays. Barrett points out that both songs are secular. Quoting a line about Berlin in Philip Roth's "Operation Shylock," she says, "Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow."

"Easter Parade" was written for the revue "As Thousands Cheer" (1933). Berlin had no inkling that the song would take on a life of its own outside the show. "White Christmas" (1942) was written in Beverly Hills, where Berlin was working on a movie and homesick for his family in New York.

At the time, neither "Easter Parade" nor "White Christmas" elicited negative responses because they were written by a Jewish composer, according to Barrett. But "God Bless America" (1938) raised the hackles of some virulent anti-Semites who questioned the right of an immigrant Jew to call on God to bless America.

Under the sponsorship of the American Conference of Christians and Jews, notes Barrett, Berlin met with a minister who had raised the question in his church. Apparently the meeting went well, the issue faded away and "God Bless America" became a national refrain.