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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” “White Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Winter Wonderland.”  Beyond the obvious answer of being Christmas carols, what do these songs have in common? What surprising facts ties them all together for our topic today? All of those holiday classics were written by Jews. My name’s… A little bit about why this episode exists, before we begin.  While getting episodes out on time in the last six weeks of the year has been an absolute fool’s errand while working retail and rideshare, it pleases me to post an episode early for the first time ever two, days into Hannukah and two days before Christmas.  Though I was raised Catholic, or as Richard Jeni said, “I’m Catholic in the same way that if a cow were born in a tree, it would be a bird,” in recent years we’ve discovered that my mother’s family converted from Judaism when they moved to the US during a pre-WWII spike in anti-semitism.  The generation that converted kept their former faith and heritage a secret from their children, though the fundraisers at their local JCC still found them. In the more recent past, at a Hannukah party in a local tea shop, that happened to be going on at the exact same time on the same street as the Krampus walk that a number of our friends were in, my husband and I met a young rabbi with salt & pepper hair and tattoos up both arms.  Since then, we’ve been attending Sabbath dinners at his apartment and learning about Judaism. Judaism is also what got me into listening to and eventually making podcasts. The first podcast I ever listened to was the Unorthodox podcast episode discussing whether there is a pejorative connotation to calling someone “a Jew” rather than “a Jewish person.” I don’t think there is, and if there is, I’m reclaiming it, so let’s call a Jew a Jew, shall we, and talk about the Jews who were instrumental, no pun intended, in shaping the way people have experienced Christmas for the past 80 years or so.   Jews writing Christmas songs isn’t some quaint relic of our grandparents’ era.  Who remembers the Ethiopian famine-relief fundraiser song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”  This 1984 hit was recorded by the super-group Band-Aid. How super were they? Nobody special, just David Bowie, Duran Duran, Kool and the Gang, Sir Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Spandau Ballet, Sting, U2 and Wham!, and that’s only about half of the ensemble.  The whole thing was the brainchild of singer, songwriter, author and political activist Bob Geldof. Irish-born Geldof had a Jewish grandfather, so while I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a Jewish song-writer, let’s just say he’s grandfathered in. [rimshot] The song sold over two million copies around the globe and raised more than $24 million.  Like an action hero returning when he is needed, Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been rerecorded three times, in 1989 and 2004 for famine relief and in 2014 to raise funds to help combat Ebola. In terms of fundraiser songs, the only thing to top it was Elton John’s “Candle In the Wind” 1997, to honor the late Princess Diana by raising money for charities she championed.  Oh, and to answer the question, “Do they know it’s Christmas?,” Ethiopia is over 60% Christian, so I’ll go out on a limb and say yes, yes they do.   The composers’ names are much less familiar than they were two generations ago, though a few, like Mel Torme and Irving Berlin, still have some cache.  Many of these nearly-forgotten names were also pen names, owing to the age old habit of changing your name to sound more American and less “ethnic” — “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by George Wyle, born Bernard Weissman and Eddie Pola, originally Sidney Pollacsek.  Wyle got his start playing piano in the Catskills before moving to LA to write and conduct music for the Alan Young Radio Show. His other great claim to fame is writing the music to the theme song for the TV show Gilligan’s Island. Musical talent seems to run in his family; Wyle’s grandson is Adam Levy, plays guitar in singer Norah Jones’ band and is also a composer.     Jay Livingston, who co-wrote “Silver Bells,” was born as the thoroughly Jewish-sound Jacob Levison.  The song was written for the 1951 Bob Hope movie, The Lemon Drop Kid. The song was originally “Tinkle Bells,” which is a legitimate choice for words to describe bells, then his wife informed him of what the word “tinkle” means to little children and people who can only use childish euphemisms to describe bodily functions, and he changed it.  The song’s lyricist, Ray Evans, was also Jewish. They formed their songwriting partnership in 1937 that it endured until Livingston’s death in 2001. Bonus fact: According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the most popular version of “Silver Bells” is the one by saxophonist Kenny G, also a Jew. This episode is going to turn into a long-form version of Adam Sandler’s Hannukah song and I only wish I’d thought of that idea earlier.     The best-selling single of all time is also a Christmas Carol written by a Jew, the Bing Crosby recording of “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin.  Born Israel Baline in a village in Russia, he grew up in the tenements of New York, where even the children had to work so the family could scrape by after their father died.  Baline left home and sang on the streets, eventually landing a gig as a singer waiter in Chinatown, where he gained notoriety for making up dirty lyrics to popular songs. That was where he was given his first crack at song-writing, which charted the course for his life.  The sheet music for that song “Marie from Sunny Italy” incorrectly listed the lyricist as I. Berlin. Baline went with it, changing his first name to Irving as well. Though he never learned to read or write music and could only play piano in one key, Irving was soon selling an average of a song a week.  He wisely kept the rights to his songs, but he lived modestly considering his success and still went to his mother’s apartment, the nice new one he got for her, for Sabbath dinner. By the end of the 1930’s, Berlin had successful Broadway shows in New York and musical movies to write in California and he and his family, a wife and four daughters, split their time between the coasts.  One December, the girls were back east, but he had to stay in Hollywood. Missing his family, Berlin tapped into those feelings of homesickness and loneliness to write a song that would be included in the film Holiday Inn and would become the biggest hit of a career well familiar with big hits. Crosby, who couldn’t have forseen that this song would soon define him, gave it a tepid approval when he first read it, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”  “White Christmas” was written in 1942, when many young men were far from home, fighting in WWII. For the men in the sweltering and alien Pacific theater, the nostalgia for a snow-covered holiday struck a nerve. White Christmas has sold in excess of 50 million copies. It won Berlin an Oscar, though he would be nominated six other times. Bonus fact: Irving Berlin is the only Oscar presenter to ever read their own name as the winner. Berlin also gave us God Bless America, Putting on the Ritz, Easter Parade, and musicals, like Annie Get Your Gun.   Two heads must be better than one, because another Jewish song-writing duo, Richard B. Smith and Felix Bernard, wrote “Winter Wonderland” and messers Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne gave us “Let It Snow!”  Styne’s family were immigrants from Ukraine and Cahn was born Cohen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s the circumstances of the song’s birth, however, the provides another thread to tie these songs together.  “Let It Snow” was written in 1943 not in snowy New England, but in Hollywood, California, during a heatwave. Cahn and Styne were thinking of cold-weather imagery to try to mentally deal with the heat. You might notice it’s not actually a holiday song, but since it’s about winter and Christmas happens during the winter, a Christmas song it became.  The same thing with “Jingle Bells,” which was actually written about traveling to see family for Thanksgiving. Though “Jingle Bells” doesn’t have a Jewish author, it does have the honor of being not only the first Christmas song, but the first song ever, broadcast *from space in 1965. In a Christmas-themed prank by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra, they told Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one … You might just let me try to pick up that thing.”  The astronauts then produced a tiny harmonica and sleigh bells that they had smuggled aboard and played their rendition of “Jingle Bells”.   That 1943 heatwave, which still hold third place or better in the records for hottest days and remains the sixth hottest year for which we have records, was a blessing in disguise for crooners of carols.  Composter Bob Wells and writer/singer Mel Torme were also suffering in SoCal when they began evoking cold-weather imagery: [song clip] “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, And folks dressed up like Eskimos.”  Theirs was a temporary relief. The song came together so quickly, it was done in around 45 minutes. The most famous version was the first one recorded, the version by Nat King Cole. Cole did four different recordings over the subsequent five years, sometimes with his trio, sometimes solo performer, which is likely the one you’re most familiar with.  Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog, whose singing talents were a recurring reference on the show Night Court and who saw a return to popularity when people rediscovered performers like Torme and Tony Bennet about a decade ago, also recorded the song, but his version didn’t sell as well. Luckily for him, he owned the publishing rights to the song, meaning it continued to bring in royalties for the rest of his life as people kept recording covers.   [[The lyrics allude to the strangeness of two Jews writing a Christmas classic, evoking, “scary ghost stories* and tales of the glories of the Christmases long, long ago.”  *recent immigrants from countries with Yule monsters]]   An underappreciated song, at least in this reporter’s opinion, takes on a great depth of meaning when you learn about its original context.  “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by a married duo with terrifically Christymay names: Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne. Noel was a Catholic hailing from Alsace, France, but Gloria was a Jewess from Brookline, Mass.  Her family lived next door to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, parents of future president John Kennedy. In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war with Russia seemed imminent, Shayne Regney wrote “Do You Hear What I Hear?” as a plea for peace.  It’s a protest song, at the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, Rage Against The Machine. Shayne and Regney merged the secular and the sacred by retelling the nativity story, in modern language set to classic-sounding modal harmonies. The climax of the song speaks directly and fervently to Shayne’s childhood neighbor, President Kennedy: “Said the king to the people ev’rywhere, ‘Listen to what I say: Pray for peace, people ev’rywhere!’”  The song’s plea for peace and “goodness and light” struck a chord with an anxious public—and was soon added to the modern holiday canon.   Outside of Santa Claus himself, no Christmas time character has had such a full life as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, possibly the most endearing and enduring piece of commercial tie-in ever.  The 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) is largely credited for the contemporary Christmas lore that includes eight named reindeer.  L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz,” came up with his own team of sleigh-pullers for Father Christmas in his 1902 book story The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but they didn’t stick. Two of the reindeer did see their names change slightly when one reprint of the poem used the German spelling of “Donder and Blitzen,” rather than the original Dutch spelling, “Dunder and Blixem;” both phrases translate to  “Thunder and Lightning.” The only addition to the ungulate crew that people accepted since 1823 came by way of a free book given to children when their parents came to shop at Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939. Imagine if a Happy Meal toy became a cultural touchstone. That’s about what happened here. In the story, Rudolph’s glowing red nose made him a social outcast among the other reindeer. Santa Claus’s worldwide flight one year was imperiled by severe fog. Visiting Rudolph’s house to deliver his presents, Santa observed Rudolph’s glowing red nose in the darkened bedroom and decided to use him as a makeshift lamp to guide his sleigh. Rudolph accepted Santa’s request to lead the sleigh for the rest of the night, and he returned home a hero for having helped Santa Claus.      Rudolph was the creation of Robert L. May, who was born to a well-off Jewish family in New Rochelle, NY in 1905, meaning he was 14 when the stock market crash of 1928 ushered in the Great Depression hit, and the Mays were financially ruined.  As an adult, May married a woman who had the same name as his sister, Evelyn, and the pair moved to Chicago where he worked at Montgomery Ward as a copywriter for their famous catalogs. This is back in the Montgomery Ward vs Sears and Robuck days.  The pay wasn’t great, but working is better than not working, especially when their daughter Barbara was born. A few years later, to balance out the happiness, fate gave Evelyn can. Her prognosis was not good, but May spent his last dollar on the best medical care he could get for her.   In January 1939, May’s boss gave him a special assignment.   Each year during the Christmas shopping season, Montgomery Ward gave customers a free holiday children’s book.  Though it was popular and did bring customers in, it was costly. The executives reasoned that it would be cheaper to produce their own book and May was commissioned to write it.  The only guidance this secular Jew was given on his assignment to write a Christmas story was that it should include animals. That’s not a lot to go on.   May drew from his own family to find inspiration.  Little Barbara had gone nuts for the deer at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.  Maybe that could be the animal, since wasn’t santa’s sleigh pulled by a kind of deer, after all.  May’s wife Evelyn had told him stories us how painfully shy she was as a child, and how other children made fun of her and excluded her from their games because of it.  May could empathise. His childhood has been similar, being bullied for being a big-nosed Jew. I’m not playing to the stereotype; May had a long nose which he was self-conscious about his entire life.  While we’re on the topic, There is no scientific evidence that Jews have bigger noses than most Mediterranean peoples. Two other things, however, are certain. When a Jew has a big nose, confirmation bias kicks in, it’s interpreted as demonstrating Jewishness not randomness. Second, medieval demonization not anthropological observation linked Jews with big noses.  Rudolph with his shiny nose is called names and laughed at by the other reindeer. Yet unlike May, who assimilated so completely that his second wife and children never even knew he was Jewish, Rudolph subversively refuses to assimilate and the thing that made him difference saved the day and made everyone love him. It’s important to bear in mind that May was writing during the height of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.   Anyway, all these factors came together with the idea to make the main character an underdog, which is story-telling 101.  May remembered later, “Suppose he (the story’s hero) were an underdog, a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of loser? Certainly, a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh.”  The last piece of the puzzle came in the form of thick fog over Lake Michigan, the sort of fog that necessitated the four dozen lighthouses on the lake. As May looked at it from his office, “Suddenly I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight.”  Once he settled on a name, the legend was born, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.   May was stoked about his idea.  His boss, less so. In fact, his boss hated the concept.  Undeterred, May asked a friend in the company’s art department to draw his idea. A few days later, they took their design back to the boss, who retracted his first opinion and ordered May to put that story into finished form.”  May began turning his story idea into a poem when he lost part of his inspiration. Evelyn died that July. May was devastated and drowned himself in his work, even after his boss offered to assign the project to someone else. By late August, the poem was done.  Using his daughter and in-laws as a focus group, May read them the poem and knew from the look in their eyes that he had succeeded. The book went to print and became a hit almost as soon as Montgomery Ward began handing them out. The company gave away 2.5 million copies that year.    By 1946, they were now giving away 6 million copies.  A record company wanted to record the poem, but Montgomery Ward owned the rights to Rudolph’s story and image.  In a move that would look too cliche and cheesy for even the most uninspired Hallmark movie, when they approached the normally tough-as-nails CEO, he handed over the rights to May.   Rudolph is kind of a double-whammy for today’s list.  The original poem was written by a Jew and so was the song based on it.  In fact, the song was written by May’s own brother-in-law, Johnny Marks a decade later.  It was the song that really cemented the flying reindeer myth into the American consciousness, becoming a hit for the singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949.  Make that a hat trick, because May’s publisher, Harry Elbaum, was also Jewish. Autry wasn’t really sold on the idea of the song and supposedly agreed to record it after his wife pestered him about it, making it the “B Side” to another holiday song.  Autry was soon disabused of his doubts when “Rudolph” became America’s number one hit song for Christmas week 1949 and sold 2.5 million copies that year alone, eventually becoming the second best-selling holiday record behind Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”  Since then, cartoons, books, and TV specials have been made based on it, including the amazingly classic Rankin-Bass stop-motion movie and its mystifyingly bizarre sequel, in which Rudolph goes back to dinosaur times to save New Years. And 70’s were weird, man.   May remarried, converted to Catholicism, and had five more children before his death in 1976.  Rudolph provided him a comfortable income, though it didn’t make him rich. The real reward, Bob May said, “is knowing that every year, when Christmas rolls around, Rudolph still brings happiness to millions, both young and old.”  So, just as the poem predicted, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer did indeed go down in history.   Let’s not gloss over Johnny’s Marks’ contribution to Christmas, either.  This member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame also wrote “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold” (which were hits for singer Burl Ives), “Silver and Gold” (for Burl Ives), “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (which I assumed was a much older song), “Run Rudolph Run” (recorded by Chuck Berry), all the songs in the Rankin-Bass Rudolph, and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” sung by Brenda Lee.  Playing saxophone on that record was Nashville session musician “Boots” Randolph, is the guy who created “Yakety-Sax,” the funny chase music from The Benny Hill show.     Speaking of gifts that keep on giving… Review, RT’s and Richard’s comment, Carl’s email   We’ve got the what, but we’re missing the why.  Why is it that so many modern classic Christmas songs are written by people who don’t celebrate Christmas?  The answer to that go all the way to Russia at the end of the 19th century. Alexander II had ended the near-slavery system of fuedal lords and serfs.  After he was assassinated in 1881, his son Alexander III was quick to start reversing his father’s liberal reforms and, while he was at it, stigmatize the Jews.  According to one of Alexander’s closest advisers, the idea was that “one-third of the Jews will convert, one third will die, and one-third will flee the country.”  It worked. Between 1881 and 1914, more than two million Jews left Russia, many of them bound for America. For a strictly historically accurate point of reference, think of the Mousekawitz family from An American Tail.  No single city was affected more by the influx of Jews than New York. The Jewish population grew from approximately 80,000 in 1870 to 1.4 million in 1915, 28% of the city’s population. That’s why it seems like there are a lot of Jews in New York even though Jews only make up about 3% of the country’s population, because there are.     Many immigrants, like Irving Berlin’s family, found themselves crowded into the filthy tenements of the Lower East Side.  Jobs were thin on the ground, with good jobs nearly unheard of. Forbidden from nearly all professions and restricted from pursuing higher education, a surprisingly large number found their way into the world of popular music.  If you had the talent, there were fewer barriers to entry than in other careers. As Minnie Marx, the mother of the comedy legends Marx Brothers, said, “Where else can people who don’t know anything make so much money?”   The struggle to make it ran concurrently with the desire to assimilate, to not be an outside, to not be the other.  Step one of making it, get rid of your foreign, Jewish name. Israel Baline became Irving Berlin, Jacob and Israel Gershowitz became George and Ira Gershwin, and Asa Yoelson became Al Jolson.  Most not only left their names behind, but all traces of their Jewishness as well. Being Jewish was as bad for business as being an immigrant. The desire to be “real Americans” became an asset.  They were extraordinarily sensitive to the hopes and dreams of the American middle class that they so desperately wanted to enter, especially when their new home was in danger during WWII.   After Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” broke sales records in 1942, composers set their sights on Christmas.  Prior to that, Christmas songs didn’t seem worth the bother, that they would only sell records and sheet music for one month out of the year.  As hard as it may be to believe, it’s not that long ago that Christmas was just another holiday, albeit the most popular one, rather than something entire industries hinge on.  Bridging the gap between religions to write a song about a holiday you’ve never celebrated was not as difficult as it may seem. “White Christmas” only two images of Christmas in its eight line — treetops glistening, and children listening to sleigh bells.  You didn’t need to understand Christmas, just the feel of Christmas time, the Norman Rockwell version of things, a mythic, secular American Christmas on which the country could project its dreams and create memories of a significantly rose-colored past. This kind of Christmas was one even Jews could participate in.   Each of these Jewish songwriters took their own individual path toward assimilation, but together they created the soundtrack for a Christmas that was more an American holiday than a Christian holiday, more cultural than religious.  Everyone was invited to the party. The new secular Christmas they helped invent reflected the country’s ideal of a melting pot to bring disparate people together under one banner. They created tableaus of simpler, more innocent past that a troubled country could look back to for comfort.  Their songs continue to bring this idyllic, mythic past to life and allow us, for at least one day a year, to believe in it. Jewish immigrants, desperate to participate in the American dream, created the Christmas you know and love. Something to think about in these polarizing times.   And that’s…. Remember…   Ima throw a little shade here.  There is no war on Christmas. I saw a commercial referencing Christmas in the last week of *August.  The store I work at started putting up tinsel before Halloween. If there was a war on Christmas, I would have started it myself. Sources:   Music used: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” sung by BandAid “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby “The Christmas Song,” sung by Nat King Cole “Do You Hear What I Hear?” sung by Martina McBride “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer,” sung by Gene Autry   Soc med: