The Jews Who Wrote Christmas
By Rob Kapilow
When Alexander II, the great Russian reformer who freed the serfs, was assassinated in 1881, his son Alexander III ascended to the throne, and it quickly became clear that his repressive regime would have an enormous impact on every aspect of Russian society. What was not nearly as clear was that his regime would also have a major impact on the history of the Broadway musical and the entire soundtrack of America’s Christmas.
Alexander III did everything he possibly could to undo his father’s liberal reforms and stigmatize the Jews. According to one of Alexander’s closest advisors, the hope was that “one-third of the Jews will convert, one third will die, and one-third will flee the country.” The plan worked, and between 1881 and 1914 more than two million Jews left Russia, with America being the prime destination. Though the influx of Jewish immigrants had a major impact on the country as a whole, no single city was affected more than New York City.
Many of these poor immigrants congregated in the filthy tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, where they desperately tried to eke out a living in whatever menial jobs they could find. Since the Jews were forbidden entrance into nearly all of the professions and had restricted access to higher education, a surprisingly large number found their way into the world of popular music. When asked why there were so many Jews in show business, Minnie Marx—the mother of the Marx Brothers—said, “Where else can people who don’t know anything make so much money?”
The overwhelming impulse among the children of Jewish immigrants was toward assimilation, and the first step in becoming “American” nearly always involved changing their names. Israel Baline became Irving Berlin, Jacob and Israel Gershowitz became George and Ira Gershwin, Hyman Arluck became Harold Arlen, Asa Yoelson became Al Jolson, and Isidore Hochberg became “Yip” Harburg.
Russian-born Israel Isidore Beilin took on a new name in New York - Irving Berlin.
However, in their desire to become mainstream Americans, most of them left behind not only their names but all traces of their Jewishness, as well. As outsiders, they were extraordinarily sensitive to the hopes and dreams of the American middle class they so desperately wanted to enter. And in the 1940s, as a deeply troubled America watched the world collapse amidst the horror of World War II, Jewish songwriters provided comfort by creating a songbook for a secular Christmas that they invented purely out of their own imaginations.
Before Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” broke all sales records in 1942, composers had spent little time focusing on Christmas songs because it seemed as if their appeal could only be short-term and seasonal. But 1942 was the first Christmas that millions of American soldiers would spend away from their homes, and “White Christmas” struck a deep chord both overseas and at home. Though the song contains only two images of Christmas—treetops glistening and children listening to sleigh bells—that was enough to allow Americans to imagine a reassuring, idealized, Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives, small town, New England past with sleigh rides and falling snow: a mythic, secular American Christmas on which the country could project its dreams.
Bing Crosby, with Marjorie Reynolds, sings "White Christmas" in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn.
The phenomenal success of “White Christmas” led other Jewish songwriters to follow Berlin’s path, and they quickly began to create a songbook for the new secular holiday. Though names like George Wyle (born Bernard Weissman), Eddie Pola (Sidney Pollacsek), Felix Bernard, Jay Livingston (Jacob Levison), Ray Evans, Gloria Shayne Baker (Gloria Shain), Robert Wells (Robert Levison), Robert May, and Johnny Marks might be unfamiliar today, they—along with better-known songwriters like Mel Tormé, Jule Styne, and Sammy Cahn—wrote the core of the secular Christmas-song repertoire. “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, “Silver Bells,” The Christmas Song,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” “Winter Wonderland,” "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” were all written by these largely unknown Jewish songwriters.
In 1957, Irving Berlin tried to ban Elvis Presley’s recording of “White Christmas,” but it quickly reached number one on Billboard’s Pop LP chart. Its phenomenal success opened the floodgates for the rock versions of Christmas songs that continue to inundate the market each year. But this all began with the children of Jewish immigrants, desperate to leave their pasts behind and become part of mainstream America. And today, at this polarizing moment in our history, when the place of immigrants in our society is under intense scrutiny, it might be valuable to remember that these songs of immigrants have become the voice of America’s Christmas. They are the music of America’s melting pot. They are the soundtrack of the American dream.