Jewish Christmas Music

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Jewish Christmas Music

A Christmas cactus in bloom
As a Jew, when I hear someone say "Merry Christmas" I get so triggered that I create a vast cultural legacy of theater, music and literature and share it with the world.

– Paul Rudnick

Don't get excited. This is not going to be controversial. Yes, there are no end of people in the Christmas-celebrating world who feel the urgent need to complain every December about the decline of the holiday. It's too commercial. People don't greet each other in the same way anymore. The mince pies at the supermarket are too small (a hot topic on British Twitter this year). The decorations aren't as nice.

I even got into the Christmas-complaint spirit for about fifteen minutes when I couldn't find any curling ribbon at the dollar store. Fifteen minutes was how long it took me to order some from Amazon. Problem solved, traditional Christmas saved. My ribbons curl.

There's no 'war' on Christmas. People still celebrate it the way they remember it and add their own newer ideas. If you live south of the equator, your Christmas memories don't involve snow, and may involve going for a swim or having an outdoor barbecue. That snow stuff is geographically limited. How often does it snow in the eastern Mediterranean, anyway? (I ask as a former Athenian resident.)

I knew two brothers from Nebraska who swore that no Nativity scene was complete without a dinosaur. It seems the dinos were a fixture in their small-town park and they grew up with a T. Rex looming over the manger. We all have our own memories.

Swedish classroom at the University of Pittsburgh, photographed by Karen Blaha.

Some people worry that they shouldn't say 'Merry Christmas!' to people who don't celebrate for religious reasons. That's really a non-issue – at least, it has been in the US for donkeys' years. Example: In 1972, our university Hebrew class happened to be meeting in the Swedish classroom of the Cathedral of Learning. The Nationality Rooms are a set of rooms dedicated to the cultures of Pittsburgh immigrants, created and overseen by committees representing those groups. And they decorated for Christmas. Boy, did they decorate. So when we came in for class one Monday morning in early December, there was a very Swedish Christmas tree in the front of the room by the lectern.

Our instructor, a grumpy Israeli from Petah Tikvah, came, saw, and did not like, we could tell. This caused amusement among my fellow students, who did not like the instructor. He was always lecturing them about their insufficient attention to what he believed was right Jewish knowledge. We'd already had the rant about the lady in front of him in the bakery line on Murray Avenue one Friday morning. 'She said she wanted 'hollies', and he knew what she meant! Say after me, challah!'

'Don't pay any attention to him,' my Jewish friends told me, the lone goy in the class. 'Israeli Jews are almost as bad as German Jews!' So everybody continued to annoy the instructor by pronouncing Hebrew like Yiddish – including me, because I'd already started learning that language, which to me was as good as any other. Israelis in the 1970s didn't like Yiddish, and there was a minor feud. So pronouncing levanah (moon) as le-VOH-neh could be misconstrued as a culturally provocative act.

Thus, when the one late student waltzed in, saw the Swedish Christmas tree, and grinned, 'Aha! A Hanukkah bush!' our instructor was off and running. We were treated to a rant in high style on the subject of assimilation. One which I listened to with great Baptist interest. (I could relate: it was pretty much the one my mom gave me in 1963 about not participating in Methodist Advent rituals.)

What foreigners like our instructor and denizens of the 21st Century fail to understand is that Christmas is not an exclusive holiday in the US. Everybody's welcome, and nobody thinks you've changed religious affiliations if you hang a stocking or sing 'Fa la la.' As a matter of fact, you cannot sing very many fa-la-las without the help of Jewish American composers. I will now prove this with a list, but before I go: enjoy the rest of your Twelve Days. May Epiphany bring you enlightenment, may the Three Kings duly mark your door, and may there always be a partridge in your pear tree.

Christmas Songs Composed by Jews

Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Yes, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was baptised at age seven. But his grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn.

Silver Bells. Jay Livingston and Ray Bernard Evans? Both Jews with Eastern European backgrounds. The song was written for Bob Hope, who, as everybody knows, was an Englishman named Leslie.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Johnny Marks, who also wrote 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' and 'Holly Jolly Christmas.'

The Christmas Song. You can't get more Christmas-sy than 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,' which was sort of a satirical complaint about the weather during the 1945 heatwave in California. Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (né Levinson) came up with this one.

Do You Hear What I Hear? Gloria Shayne, one-half the team on this one, was Jewish. And yes, it's really about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Edward Pola (Sidney Edward Pollacsek) and George Wyle (Bernard Weissman).

Let It Snow! Sammy Cohn and Julie Styne.

Santa Baby. Joan Javits and Phillip Springer.

White Christmas. Another complaint about California weather, this one by Irving Berlin, that most American of Jewish composers.

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