American Institution and Mason: Irving Berlin
September 24, 2019
The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library holds ten commemorative medallions celebrating “Famous Masons” in U.S. history, issued between 1992 and 2001 by the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. Seventh in this series and pictured here is one honoring a hugely influential figure in American culture: the songwriter Irving Berlin (1888-1989).
There are many great reasons to celebrate Berlin today, at the thirtieth anniversary of his death on September 22, 1989. Of his staggering musical contributions, these are but a few: the jazz standards, “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” and “Always;” show tunes like “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better);” and the beloved holiday classics, “White Christmas” and “Happy Holiday.”
His song “God Bless America”—originally composed during his service in World War I, but not made public until Armistice Day, 1938—became so renowned that many called for it to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. But Berlin would not hear of it, saying, “There’s only one national anthem, which can never be replaced.”
It was his own roots as a Jewish immigrant that made Berlin (born Israel Beilin) feel so strongly for America. When he was five, his family fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe to the relative refuge of New York City’s Lower East Side. Their existence there was hardscrabble; Berlin busked on street corners for pennies, and climbed his way up through a combination of talent, wits, and hard work. Once he was a rich man, he credited his success to his adopted country. Over the years, he donated millions in song royalties to the Army Emergency Relief Fund and the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, in addition to other causes. He was also a staunch believer in paying his share of taxes, and once balked at his lawyers’ advice to use tax shelters, reputedly saying, “I want to pay taxes. I love this country.”
Berlin was also a devoted Mason. A member of New York City’s Munn Lodge No. 190, he became a Master Mason in 1910 and a 32° Scottish Rite Mason later the same year. In 1911 he was initiated into Mecca Shrine Temple, and by 1936 had been designated a lifetime member of both groups. True to Masonic ideals in myriad ways, Berlin worked for peace among all humankind. Among many awards he received was a 1944 honor by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict.”
Read more about SRMML’s holdings related to this admirable American Mason here.
“Irving Berlin (1888-1989).” Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, c. 1998-2019, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/irving-berlin.
Jablonski, Edward. Irving Berlin: American Troubadour. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1999, 192-3.
McCorkle, Susanna. “Always: A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin." American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 49, Issue 7, November 1998. Free Republic, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1680087/posts.