Lady, Be Good! (Overture)

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Gershwin came from Russian Jewish heritage. His grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew. He retired near Saint Petersburg. His teenage son, Moishe Gershowitz, worked as a leather cutter for women’s shoes; Moishe fell in love with Rosa Bruskin, the teenage daughter of a Saint Petersburg furrier. Bruskin moved with her family to New York because of increasing antisemitism in Russia; she Americanized her first name to Rose. Moishe, faced with compulsory military service in Russia, followed Rose as soon as he was able. Upon arrival in New York, Moishe Gershowitz gave his first name as Morris. He settled at first with his mother’s brother in Brooklyn, a tailor named Greenstein, and earned money as a foreman in a women’s shoe workshop. When Morris and Rose married on July 21, 1895, she was 19 and he was 23. Gershowitz changed his family name to Gershwin some time between 1893 and 1898, perhaps at his marriage.

The first child of the family was Ira Gershwin, born with the name Israel, on December 6, 1896. Morris moved his family to Brooklyn, a second-floor dwelling at 242 Snediker Avenue. George Gershwin was born there on September 26, 1898; his birth certificate bears the name Jacob Gershwine, which would have been pronounced ‘Gershvin’ in the ex-pat Russian neighborhood. The boy was named for his late grandfather, the army mechanic. However, he was not called anything but ‘George’. (Years later, George changed the spelling of his surname to ‘Gershwin’ after he became a professional musician; other members of his family followed suit.)

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