In an episode of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” the character Howard Wolowitz explains his inability to identify a traditional Christmas carol sung by a friend: “No wonder I didn’t recognize it; it may be the only Christmas song not written by a Jewish songwriter.”
Many people know that the most frequently recorded Christmas song of all time, “White Christmas” (with well over 500 adaptations in dozens of languages), was written by the Jewish Irving Berlin, but few are aware of just how many other popular Christmas songs were also written by Jews.
Berlin (1888 – 1989), who played a leading role in the evolution of the popular song from early ragtime and jazz through the golden age of musicals, became one of the most prolific and beloved songwriters of all time. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Czarist Russia, and some critics attributed “an exotic Jewishness” to his work. He was taken to New York after his childhood home was destroyed in a pogrom (1893), and he wrote “God Bless America” – considered America’s “unofficial national anthem” – in appreciation of the country that had provided a safe haven for his family and for other persecuted Jews.
Despite his father having been a rabbi/cantor, Berlin was never himself a religious man, although he was a great supporter of Jewish causes, including the state of Israel. Ironically, “White Christmas,” considered the most enduring of his 1,500 songs, has been called “the ultimate goyishe anthem,” having been written by a Jew who “had reached the outer limits of musical assimilation,” which included intermarriage and permitting his children to be raised as Episcopalians. His three-week old son, Irving, died on Christmas day, which may explain why, as one writer insightfully put it, his classic holiday song has “a strong undertone of melancholy, yearning for something that feels just out of reach.”
But by no means does the rich irony underscoring the Jewish domination of Christmas songs end with Berlin. Based upon radio airplay, ASCAP (the American Society of Composers and Publishers) compiles an annual list of the 25 most popular holiday songs – and twelve of the twenty-five were written by Jews.
Among these Jewish creators is Walter Kent (1911 – 1994), born Walter Maurice Kaufman, who is best remembered for the wartime standards “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” which he wrote during World War II with Jewish lyricist Nat Burton (born Nat Schwartz). Bing Crosby’s recording of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which he made only a year after “White Christmas,” sold over a million copies in its first year and became the most requested song at USO shows in both Europe and the Pacific. Acutely meaningful to American soldiers serving overseas and to the families who anxiously awaited their return, the song went on to become a universal classic.
Shown here is a musical quotation handwritten by Kent with a line from “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” signed, “Best wishes! Walter Kent.” It’s noteworthy that Kent, writes “x-mas” instead of spelling out the name of the Christian holiday.
Another Yuletide perennial on the top-25 list is “Silver Bells,” written by Jay Livingston (1915 – 2001), born Jacob Harold Levison. A composer and lyricist who scored more than eighty films, he was nominated for seven Best Song Oscars, winning three times, for “Buttons and Bows” (1948); “Mona Lisa” (1950); and “Que Sera Sera” (1956). One of his nominated songs was “Silver Bells” (from the 1951 Bob Hope movie “The Lemon Drop Kid”), and while it didn’t win an Oscar, it had sold 140 million copies by 1955.
Exhibited here are five famous musical quotes handwritten by Livingston. Aside from “Silver Bells,” he has penned bars from “Mona Lisa,” “Que Sera Sera,” and the theme songs from the great TV classics “Bonanza” and “Mister Ed.”
The record for the most Christmas songs in the top 25 is, not surprisingly, held by a Jew. Incredibly, Johnny Marks wrote three of them: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas.”
Other popular Christmas songs written by Jews include:
* “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Sammy Cahn (born Sammy Cohen, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants) and Jule Styne.
* “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard (born Felix William Bernhardt).
* “The Christmas Song” (better known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) by Jews Robert Wells (born Levinson) and Mel Tormé.
* “Sleigh Ride” by lyricist Mitchell Parish (born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky in Lithuania.)
* “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by George Wyle (born Bernard Weissman).
* “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Bob Allen (born Robert Allen Deitcher) and Al Stillman (born Albert Silverman)
* “Santa Baby” by Joan Ellen Javits (the niece of Senator Jacob Javits) and Philip Springer.
* “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser.
It’s interesting to note that all these songs written by Jews incorporate secular rather than Christological themes. In marked contrast with the winter pogroms many of them experienced in the European ghettos of their youth, Jewish composers and writers generally rendered Christmas, stripped of its religious underpinnings, as a charming American family holiday.
Inherently religious compositions were replaced by songs about sleigh bells, reindeer, gifts to children, crackling fires in the family hearth, and winter weather; thus, for example, “White Christmas” is more about America than about Christmas. It is also telling that in compiling its annual favorites song list, ASCAP was always careful to characterize them as “holiday songs” rather than “Christmas songs.”
So why were so many Christmas classics written by Jewish songwriters? It turns out the Jewish role in writing Christmas music is actually a mere corollary to the oversized role they played writing American popular music in general.
During the Middle Ages and extending into the modern era, music was one of the few disciplines in which European Jews were permitted to participate. While, absent conversion, they generally could not get jobs as court musicians or composers, musically talented Jews were usually permitted to work as traveling musicians, which they sometimes used to supplement their meager incomes from serving as cantors or composers of Jewish religious music.
The timing of the great Jewish migration to America was such that Jewish songwriters found a haven here just when a huge market for popular music was developing. American Jews became great consumers of popular music and about 75 percent of the most popular songwriters of the Great American Songbook period were Jewish. Even to date, the Christmas holiday season remains culturally and commercially important, and the main reason Jewish songwriters wrote, and still write, Christmas songs is for commercial purposes. Moreover, while most hit songs have a relatively short shelf-life in terms of popularity, a good Christmas song has a chance to live on forever – and, not insignificantly, to generate royalties off a good copyright well into the future.
This may explain why some of the greatest Jewish songwriters of the 20th century – including, for example, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen – are conspicuously absent from the list of Christmas song writers and composers. As they were all highly successful, and well compensated for their Broadway musicals and films, they lacked the financial incentive of other Jewish composers to write Christmas songs.
Finally, no comparable mass market for Chanukah and other Jewish seasonal and holiday songs exists, mostly because Jews comprise roughly 2 percent of the American population. Nonetheless, beyond Adam Sandler’s insipid “The Chanukah Song” (1994, with several subsequent updated versions) – which, sadly, is perhaps the best-known Chanukah song to the average American – many Jews (and non-Jews) have written and performed Chanukah and associated holiday songs.
Any list of the latter would include Peter, Paul and Mary (group member Peter Yarrow is Jewish) who performed “Light One Candle” (1982), a social action song referring to the Maccabees’ struggle; the Jewish reggae star Matisyahu, who sang “Miracle” (2011); and Woody Guthrie, who wrote many Chanukah songs for his Jewish wife and children, including “Hanuka Gelt”; “Spin Dreydl Spin”; “(Do the) Latke Flip-Flip”; and “Haunuka’s Flame” (see my April 8, 2016 Jewish Press column, “Woody Guthrie: Jewish Family, Jewish Music”).
But a 2009 Chanukah song written as “a gift to the Jewish people” by Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon from Utah, never quite caught on.