The Jewish contribution to Christmas music

That most Christmassy of Christmas songs 'White Christmas' was written by Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin.(Photo: Unsplash/Ryan Johns)

Those Jews who came to the US, escaping from the pogroms, rapes, murders and arsons they experienced from Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe, expressed their gratitude to America in a number of ways.

After the initial traumas and hardships, including the ever-present antisemitism on the streets (some of which is sadly re-emerging in new forms today), the Jews of America settled down to help other minorities and to contribute as much as they could to society at large.

They threw themselves into institution-building, science, economics, sociology, philosophy, literature and the arts. They won a number of Nobel Prizes and were the most enthusiastic proponents of Thanksgiving Day, which is now celebrated on the final Thursday in November (thus bridging the period between the autumn festival of Succot and the winter festival of Chanukah).

But what the Jews of America have probably been most famed for is their glorious music. And nothing has been more glorious than the contribution of Jews to the music celebrated at Christmas.

My Jewish Learning provides a list of seven classic Christmas songs written (both melodies and lyrics) by Jews, most of whom escaped from a life of unimaginable impoverishment and untold suffering to the hard conditions of New York. Debarred of formal education, most of the time, some left school as young as 8 and turned to song.

The most famous and many would say the greatest of these impecunious Russian immigrants was Irving Berlin (1888-1989) who, despite unbelievable depredations and deprivations, lived to the age of 101.

Originally called Israel Beilin, he arrived in New York from Belorussia at the age of five and published his first song in 1907. In 1911, Irving had his first hit with 'Alexander's Rag Time Band', which sparked an international dance craze.

Irving's aim was 'to reach the heart of the average American', even though his native language was Yiddish and he had no musical training.

His father, who died when Irving was 13, had been a synagogue chazzan (cantor) back in Belorussia, and that was Irving's only link with music.

At Irving's 100th anniversary tribute, the great American journalist, Walter Cronkite, stated that Irving had 'helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.'

Cronkite himself was known as 'the most trusted man in America', which tells you something about how journalists were regarded in those days, and how Jews were then embraced as part of the American fabric, and not (as so often elsewhere) as a scapegoat to be libelled and slandered at the drop of a hat.

Irving wrote hundreds of songs, one of the most famous being 'God Bless America' in 1938, as WWII approached. This has become the USA's second national anthem (a bit like 'Jerusalem' in this country).

But in 1942, in the midst of WWII, when American service men and women had spent one year at war (having entered just after Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941) and were fighting in Europe, Africa and the Far East, in order to save the world from the tyrannies of Germany and Japan, Irving coined a song simply to make them feel better.

This song was intended to remind Americans everywhere that the inferno would one day come to an end. The song I am speaking of is 'White Christmas' and was actually written during a heat wave. But it became the most performed hit of all time.

While the Final Solution took place largely between September and November of 1942 and most of the Jews were already exterminated, 'White Christmas' continues to cast its spell as the work of a dirt-poor Jewish genius immigrant whose legacy lives on and attracts new listeners even 80 years after its birth.

Fellow Jewish composer, George Gershwin ('Porgy and Bess', 'Rhapsody in Blue', 'An American in Paris') called Irving Berlin 'the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.'

And the equally great Jewish composer, Jerome Kern, of 'Showboat' fame, stated: 'Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.'

And where is Christmas music performed more than anywhere else in the world? Why in Israel of course! On Sundays (a working day in Israel) an entire radio channel is devoted to church music in honour of the Christian minorities in this country – I once was asked to organize the nativity play and carol service for a state-subsidised church school in Jaffa, being the only musically-qualified person around to be able to do so.

Not only that, but at Haifa's oldest university, the Technion, our choir, conducted by Russia's youngest ever conductor (who himself as a Jew suffering hatred had had to flee Siberia some years earlier), performed the wonderful 'Navidad Nuestra' by Argentina's Ariel Ramirez, including tales of Mary and Joseph's pilgrimage through the thorns and thistles of the South American pampas.

And I also have done the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which 2,000 years ago for a heavily pregnant woman would have taken weeks, and hospitality would have been offered by Jewish communities along the way.

The impression sometimes given in the telling of the nativity story is that Mary and Joseph were left out in the cold. That a Jewish woman expecting a baby would be treated roughly by Romans is not beyond the bounds of the imagination, but for fellow Jews to behave like that towards a Jewish mother-to-be would have been unheard of for the simple fact that hospitality has always been sacrosanct in Judaism.

As such, there would always have been 'room in the inn' and this is what in fact we see in the appropriation of 'the stable'.

I am interested to learn from a number of NT scholars - expert in Greek - that it wasn't an 'inn' at all, but somebody's house.

But the reason that 'the stable' might have been used for Joseph and Mary was that if the house was full, a space for animals would have been commissioned by the host for emergency guest accommodation, thus demonstrating the willingness of Jewish people to make room for a guest rather than the opposite.

Which is why it is so tragic that modern commentators deliberately misinterpret this passage of Luke's gospel and in the process denigrate Jewish hospitality, which in Israel exceeds all bounds!

So at this time of signalling good-will to all, my wish for the Church as a Jew is that it would see this and the many other virtues of the one Jewish country - a country where the Jewish Mary and Jesus would feel very much at home!

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.