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Jews Made Major Contribution to Pantheon of Classic Christmas Songs

Irving Berlin

Many of the most well-known classic Christmas songs today were actually written by Jews who entered the American music industry in the early 20th century and drew on their immigrant backgrounds to compose secular odes to the holiday, a recent report said.

Ironically, these Jews did not write similarly iconic tunes for Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, or any other Jewish holiday, mainly because the natural market for Hanukkah songs was very small, the Religion News Service (RNS) said on December 14.

Such perennial Christmas classics as White Christmas, Let It Snow, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Silver Bells, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were all composed by Jewish songwriters. Christians don’t seem to mind that so many beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews, and Jews tend to reel off the list with pride, RNS said.

In the first half of the 20th century, Jews flocked to the music industry. It was one business where they didn’t face overwhelming anti-Semitism, said Michael Feinstein, the Emmy Award-winning interpreter of American musical standards.

“White Christmas, ” written by Jewish lyricist Irving Berlin, topped the charts in 1942 and launched popular Christmas music, encouraging many others – Jews and non-Jews – to write more odes to the holiday, RNS said.

And although celebrating the birth of Christ was not something these Jewish songwriters would want to do, they could feel comfortable composing more secular Christmas singles.

“The Christmas songs that are popular are not about Jesus, but they’re about sleigh bells and Santa and the trappings of Christmas, ” Feinstein said. “They’re not religious songs.”

In their music and lyrics, Jews captured Christmas not only as a wonderful, wintry time for family gatherings, but also as an American holiday, drawing on their background as the children of European-born Jews, or as immigrants themselves, in the case of Russian-born Berlin and others, the news service said.

The irreligious nature of these Christmas songs may not sit well with pious Christians, said Feinstein, who is Jewish and who cut “A Michael Feinstein Christmas, ” among many other albums. But they are now part of the fabric of our larger culture, he said, and “any singer who is a singer of the American songbook will sing Christmas songs, ” said Feinstein. “We all sing them.”

As for Hanukkah songs, with Jews making up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Christians nearly 80 percent, the natural market for Hanukkah tunes is relatively small. There are plenty of tuneful and moving Hanukkah songs, but many are written in languages other than English – Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino – and aren’t going to get much airplay in the U.S., RNS said.

But a growing body of Hanukkah music aims to break through the subdued and somber stereotype.

The Jewish reggae star Matisyahu came out with “Miracle” in 2011. And the Maccabeats, an a capella group based at Yeshiva University, remade the pop song “Dynamite” into a 2010 Hanukkah hit called “Candlelight.”

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