By Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, December 14, 2020
For Jews in old Europe, the Christmas season was a time to be watchful and wary and to keep out of sight. For their descendants in America, the Christmas season — which is also the season of Chanukah, of course — is a time to celebrate and give thanks for the freedom of religion that protects the menorah in their living room window no less than the Christmas tree in their neighbor’s.
In medieval and early modern Europe, this time of year often brought sermons filled with invective against Jews for the supposed crime of crucifying Christ. Instead of “good tidings of great joy,” there were apt to be blood libels and pogroms. In some Polish and German communities, Jews referred to Christmas Eve as Vay Nacht (Woe Night), a bitter play on Weihnahchten , the German word for Christmas. So great was the fear of antisemitic violence that rabbis in many communities took the radical step of prohibiting Jews from studying Torah on Christmas, in order to keep them from going to the synagogue or the study hall. Hatred of Jews polluted even Christmas music: As recently as 2013, Romanian public TV broadcast a program in which a folk ensemble sang a Christmas carol with hideous lyrics about burning Jews:
A beautiful child was born/ His name was Jesus Christ/ All the world worships him / But the kikes / Damn kikes / Holy God would not leave the kike alive / Either in the sky or on the earth / Only in the chimney as smoke / This is what the kike is good for / To make kike smoke through the chimney on the street.
How blessedly different is Christmas in the United States!
This season more than any other underscores the uniqueness of America’s Judeo-Christian tradition. Notwithstanding all our political differences, notwithstanding the endless recriminations and acrimony of the culture wars, notwithstanding even the sharp rise of irreligion in recent decades, America remains a nation in which religious tolerance, both legal and social, is deeply rooted. By and large, Americans of every confession — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs — treat each others’ religions with courtesy.
That tolerance is a reflection of the fact that religion in America has always been a matter of individual choice, with government barred by the Constitution from either establishing an official faith or prohibiting the free exercise of any faith. No religion is funded by government. Elected officials have no say in the doctrine of any faith or the content of any religious service. Religion has flourished in America because church and state are separate. And it flourishes in peace because no one is forced to support anyone else’s faith, or to attend a church he isn’t happy with, or to bring up children according to the religious views of whichever faction has the most votes.
In short, religion in America is peaceful because it is government-free. And that, in turn, is a principal reason why, in this overwhelmingly Christian country, it isn’t only Christians for whom Christmas is a season of joy. And why it isn’t only Christians who should make a point of saying so.
Jews like me, who have grown up amid this religious acceptance, may be inclined to take it for granted, but imagine how extraordinary it must have seemed to Jews who immigrated to America from lands where Christmas was Vay Nacht, or whose parents recalled all too vividly the fear and anxiety that this season used to evoke when they still lived in Poland, Hungary, or Lithuania. Perhaps that explains why so many of America’s most beloved Christmas songs were written by Jewish immigrants or their children.
Think, for example, of Israel Beilin, who was born in the Siberian village of Tyumen in 1888 and immigrated to America as child. He grew up as “Irving Berlin,” and went on to compose more than 1,500 songs and score dozens of musicals and films — but nothing he ever wrote proved more popular and enduring than a 1942 song first recorded by Bing Crosby: “White Christmas.” It is the best-selling single in the history of recorded music, and it is impossible to imagine the Great American Songbook — let alone the American Christmas Songbook — without it. It evokes what have become classic Christmastime themes: home, childhood, and nostalgia. But in its minor chords, as composer Rob Kapilow has shown, is also “all the yearning of an immigrant to be assimilated.”
Berlin was the first of a long line of Jewish immigrants, or their children and grandchildren, who helped create the soundtrack of Christmas in America.
Almost as iconic as “White Christmas” is “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose”). It was written in 1945 by 19-year-old Mel Tormé, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, together with his Jewish partner and lyricist, Robert Wells. The following year it was recorded by Nat King Cole, and almost at once became a Christmas classic.
Ray Evans and Jay Livingston were the Jewish songwriting duo who composed “Silver Bells” for a Paramount Pictures film called “The Lemon Drop Kid.” They were reluctant at first, Evans recalled years later, because “we figured — stupidly, thank God — that the world had too many Christmas songs already.” The song they wrote became a standard, recorded by artists as different as Doris Day, The Temptations, Johnny Mathis, and Elvis Presley.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by Johnny Marks, another Jewish songwriter. That song alone would have guaranteed that Marks would go down in history, but he also created “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (which is based on an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow); “ Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which has sold tens of millions of copies since it was first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958; and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which hit No. 10 on the Billboard “Hot 100” as recently as January 2020 — 58 years after it was composed.
The list goes on and on. Eddie Pola, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Hungary, wrote “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Felix Bernard created “Winter Wonderland,” which has been covered by hundreds of performers, including Michael Bublé and the Eurythmics. From Walter Kent (originally Walter Kaufman) came “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” a beloved song that astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell requested NASA to play for them while they orbited the earth aboard Gemini 7 in December 1965.
Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne were both born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (Galicia in Cahn’s case, Ukraine in Styne’s). During a heat wave in Hollywood in 1945, the duo wrote “Let It Snow,” which doesn’t actually mention Christmas but has long since earned a spot on the Christmastime playlist. Another pair of Jewish songwriters, Joan Javits and Philip Springer, came up with “Santa Baby,” which was first recorded by Eartha Kitt and became the best-selling Christmas song of 1953 — despite being banned in some states because of its slightly suggestive lyrics. (“I’ll wait up for you, dear Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”)
One last example: Gloria Adele Shain was born in Brookline, Mass.; her family lived next door to Joseph and Rose Kennedy and their children (one of whom was John F. Kennedy). In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she wrote the music to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” which was intended as a plea for peace. Today, Kennedy and the Missile Crisis are practically ancient history, but Shain’s beautiful song lives on and is heard every year at this time.
In my Jewish home we don’t celebrate Christmas, but I enjoy seeing my Christian neighbors celebrate it. I like living in a society that derives so much happiness from its religious holidays. For my ancestors in Europe, the sights and sounds of Christmas could be menacing, but for me and my family — thoroughly Jewish and thoroughly American — they are reassuring and joyful. I am thankful for the freedom that makes that possible, and that inspired so many of the season’s songs.
This article first appeared HERE.