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Gershwinning on All Fronts: An American Jewish Lyricist in Excelsis

By Benjamin Ivry

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The distressing news about a battle over royalties between George and Ira Gershwin’s heirs coincides with a no less unexpected report that Beach Boy Brian Wilson has been allowed by the Gershwin Estate to complete songs left unfinished by George when he died of a brain tumor at age 38 in 1937.

Ira, who survived into his anecdotage, dying in 1983 at age 86, is being honored with a new volume in Library of America’s Poets Project, alongside Jewish modernists Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Zukofsky, Karl Shapiro and Samuel Menashe.

Ira Gershwin (born Israel Gershowitz on the Lower East Side) rates this company since, despite his assimilated, even insular approach to Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship (“Even if Roumania/ Wants to fight Albania./ I’m not upset,” from “I Can’t Be Bothered Now”) there is a recurring awareness of the Old Country in his lyrics. His parents, Moishe and Rosa, emigrated from Russia, and Ira’s patter song “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians),” written for Danny Kaye (Born David Kaminsky to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn) is a frenetic list of Russian composers, mentioned alongside Russian Jews (Joseph Rumshinsky and Dimitri Tiomkin) and even Polish Jews (Leopold Godowsky).

Integrating Jews in the New World was also evident in another song, “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha” in which brother George’s music likewise fades out to quasi-nonexistence to better pay tribute to the “Temp’rmental Oriental Gentlemen,” the fiddlers Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel and Sascha Jacobsen (the latter being the LA Philharmonic’s concertmaster). And it’s also evident in “Freud and Jung and Adler” whose repeated names add up, according to the singing psychiatrists, to “Six sex psychos, we!” who are available “If you’re really not certain as to which your/ sex is.”

Ultimately, Ira’s Yiddishe kop is expressed in his glowing esteem for Jewish intellectual achievement, in “The Economic Situation,” ranking Benjamin Disraeli with the Ancient Greeks: “Questions that Plato and Socrates/ And Disraeli wouldn’t dare discuss.” He was a brilliant wordsmith and thoroughly deserves this brilliantly new presentation by editor Robert Kimball.

Watch the great chanteuse Frances Faye (born Frances Cohen) sing Ira Gershwin classics. The lower one introduced by Hugh Hefner.

Watch Faye and Mel Tormé (born in Chicago to a Russian Jewish family) sing Gershwin.


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