Sing the praises of a Jewish Christmas


Santa Baby. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire). Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Some of the best-known Christmas songs were written by Jews. White Christmas - the biggest-selling single of all time- was penned by a Jew, Irving Berlin, with sales estimated at over 50 million. It is the Thriller of Christmas songs (there's another musical artefact created by a Jew: the Thriller video - but that's another story).

It's not just the Sammy Cahns and Jule Stynes, the behind-scenes Jewish tunesmiths of the pre- and postwar era, who were mired in jingle bells and baubles. Barbra Streisand made A Christmas Album and Neil Diamond recorded two volumes of The Christmas Album followed by A Cherry, Cherry Christmas. Only last month, Idina Menzel issued Holiday Wishes, becoming the highest-charting solo album of her career to date with tracks by Frank Loesser (Baby It's Cold Outside) and Ralph Blane né Hunsecker (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). What next? Bette Midler and Barry Manilow to record a collection of Easter duets?

Recently, Alan Yentob presented, in his Imagine series, a BBC2 documentary called Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. In it, he waxed lyrical about the proliferation of Jewish composers on Broadway: Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim. And he asked why New York musical theatre has proved to be such a fertile ground for Jewish artists of all kinds. He suggested that, after the Second World War, the bright lights of Broadway provided an opportunity for those who had fled persecution and oppression to make it big in America. The melodies to their songs, as featured in Porgy and Bess, West Side Story and Cabaret, were, he noted, derived from Jewish prayers, suffused with melancholy and the long suffering of a people.

"It is in the DNA of Jews to write melancholy music, and also to ingratiate themselves in a world in which they are outsiders, at a time of the year when people are feeling especially patriotic and rooted in the idea of home," says Stephen Emmer, a Jewish songwriter from Holland who has worked with Lou Reed and has just recorded a Christmas song called Sleep For England with John Lennon's son, Julian, produced by David Bowie's producer Tony Visconti and featuring all manner of Yuletide trimmings, from sleigh bells to a boys' choir.

According to Emmer, there are several reasons why Jews have written so many key seasonal anthems. First, there is the natural corollary of so many Jews, as Yentob demonstrated, working in the entertainment sphere already and the inevitability that they would eventually write highly economically viable Christmas songs.

"It's a question of cold statistics," he reasons. "It's predictable that they would write festive tunes."

Then there is the pragmatic nature of Jews, enabling them to put aside their own religious leanings for three minutes of worship at the altar of all things Christian, although they cleverly avoided specific religious references or connotations, keeping things secular and more universally applicable.

"There is no mention of Jesus Christ in those songs," he points out. "Instead, there's more of a yearning that is understandable for every listener. Very cleverly, they feature an uplifting, happy-go-lucky outer layer, but there is also a melancholy undercurrent of the sort that you find in popular Jewish folk music.

"In fact, "with Chanucah songs, there is more of a melancholy overtone but with the Christmas songs it is more of an undertone. It's more subtle, and very skilfully deployed by master craftsmen."

At the most American time of the year, Jews have composed heartfelt eulogies to hearth and home to demonstrate their keenness to belong. Why would Jewish songwriters be so keen to pen quintessentially Ameri-Christian anthems? One word: assimilation.

"It's in the nature of Jewish artists," contends Emmer. "You see it in art with people like Chagall: they always allow for empathy in their work. It happens in an almost Freudian way. It's like that Woody Allen film, Zelig," he says, referencing the 1983 mockumentary about the character who is so desperate to conform that he morphs into characters from history. "He so heavily empathises with others that he becomes them! That is symbolic for how Jews have managed to integrate in worlds that are not their own, to survive and assimilate. This is a quality you can use in composing songs so that everyone can understand."

Is this why Emmer, a Dutchman, wrote a Christmas song about life - or rather, strife - in England? Because he empathises with our plight and wants to belong?

"Well, I'm not putting myself on the same level as someone like Irving Berlin," he laughs, "but here I am, a Dutch guy, writing a song for the English nation just as the songwriter-immigrants did for Americans in the '30s and '40s."

But why would this Dutch Jew write a Christmas song about the English? "At the risk of sounding like Bob Geldof, I was watching English TV in Amsterdam and was struck by images of the elderly being cold, the government being in troubled times, and I had the idea of a nation in a confused state that has to find comfort in a Christmas song," he explains.

Why not write one for Holland?

"Because Britain is far more dramatic!"

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive