December Jewish News
David Lehman’s Top Ten Christmas Songs Written by Jews
By Arlene Stolnitz
Don’t get me wrong! I’m a nice Jewish girl from upstate New York. But still, I like hearing a Christmas tune during the holiday season, while at the same time wondering why these same composers, mostly Jewish, wrote lots…mostly all the great American Christmas songs. But not one of them ever wrote a Hanukkah tune, which does make me wonder! I DO know the reason…it was their desire to be more American….but not even a single song?
Recently, I came across an interesting book about the story of American popular music having been written largely by Jews. David Lehman, poet, literary critic, and non-fiction writer is the author of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. Lehman is the son of European Holocaust survivors and grew up in Manhattan, where he attended Stuyvesant High School, Columbia University and University of Cambridge in England. His many accomplishments include writing for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, American Heritage, and Washington Post. He is the series editor for the prestigious Best American Poetry of which he is the founder.
In an interview published in Smithsonian Magazine, Lehman discusses the artistry of the great lyricists: “The best song lyrics seem to me so artful, so brilliant, so warm and humorous, with both passion and wit, that my admiration is matched only by my envy ... these lyricists needed to work within boundaries, to get complicated emotions across and fit the lyrics to the music, and to the mood thereof. That takes genius.”
And yet we know that these same composers were anxious to shed their immigrant past and reinvent themselves as American. The lyrics represent an America that offered a new idea of what America should be, even in the face of changing times, and it was especially true during the holiday season. It was their “affirmation of American ideals as they understood them….pressing back against the forces that aimed to extinguish them.”
Recently, Lehman was asked to list his top ten Christmas songs written by Jews.
10. The Christmas Waltz, music and lyrics by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.
9. Silver Bells, music by Jay Livingston, lyrics by Ray Evans.
8. Winter Wonderland, music and lyrics by Felix Bernard.
7. Santa Baby, music and lyrics by Joan Ellen Javits and Philip Springer.
6. Sleigh Ride, lyrics by Mitchell Parish (born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky).
5. I’ll Be Home For Christmas, music by Buck Ram and lyrics by Walter Kent.
4. I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
3. Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, music by Julie Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn.
2. The Christmas Song, (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), music and lyrics by Mel Torme and Bob Wells.
1. White Christmas, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
And yes, they are all Jewish composers and lyricists!
Lehman says this “Christmas phenomenon is just one example of his larger point: that the story of American popular music is massively a Jewish story.” Their art is not one of defiance but an affirmation of American ideals.
But still the question remains: Where are the Hanukkah songs that could have been written? We all know Hanerot Hallelu, Ma’oz Tzur, Hanukah, O Hanukah, and The Dreidel Song….just a few tunes in the Chanukah repertoire.
As I have noted in an earlier column, we do have Hanukkah songs written by contemporary composers. One I would like to focus on is the Maccabeats’ song Burn. It incorporates a modern interpretation of a Chanukah song with the problem of bullying. In doing so, the group is addressing a social issue in modern society. How clever! I am always on the lookout for more tunes like this one. You can hear and see their accompanying video on You Tube. Check it out!!