Jews and ‘Jingle Bells’


All together now:

"I'm dreaming of a white …"
Not going to happen.
Environmentally, sure, it's a possibility. But expecting a Jewish composer like Irving Berlin of "White Christmas" fame to wax lyrical over Judah Maccabee's miracle?
That would be a miracle in and of itself.
But why do some Jewish composers find Christmas more musical than Chanukah?
Adam Sandler brought "The Hanukkah Song" to the screen in "8 Crazy Nights."
Easy answer, the late Mel Torme once told me when I asked how he, a Jew, could write The Christmas Song and not drop a chestnut on an open fire on behalf of Chanukah:
"Bigger audience," the singer/composer said of going after the catholic crowd.
Exactly, explains Marsha Bryan Edelman, professor emerita of music and education at Gratz College as well as a renowned Jewish choral leader: "Composers and singers are just finding a bigger market for their talents this way."
It all comes down, she says, to this: "What does success mean in the 21st century?"
By all standards, Barry Rabin is a modern Jewish success story: "I am married, have two wonderful children and attend synagogue regularly" at Kesher Israel in West Chester, says the lawyer with a thriving practice in Chester County.
Rubin, 54, is also a composer, and when he heard the musical pitter-patter of feet on the roof he knew it wasn't the Fiddler; it was Santa.
But a Santa with labor problems? Rabin didn't cross the picket line but the lines he came up with had a Santa clause: "The Year the Elves Went Out on Strike" is a strike for interfaith understanding, he contends of the cute tune available for download on any number of musical websites, including iTunes.
Composer Barry Rabin of Chester County and his elfin effort
Photo by Patrick Rabin
"Somewhere during the process of writing this song, I started to wonder why a Jewish person like me would want to write a Christmas song," he admits.
"Rather than enter psychoanalysis, I turned to the modern-day equivalent, Google."
It was there that he discovered a sleigh full of samples of fellow Jewish jingle-ists (Berlin, Johnny Marks, Jay Livingston/ Ray Evans, Torme) and a writer — Nate Bloom — who has been writing about the phenomenon in a series of articles.
Many if those cited from mid-20th century and earlier were interested in assimilating into a Christian culture — and reaping the monetary rewards it meant.
"What all of this tells me," relates Rabin, "is that I have in fact been following a great Jewish-American tradition."
But are the Jews selling out? Have yourself a merry little crisis?
Absolutely not, contends Amy E. Levy, cantor at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park and music educator.
"Irving Berlin and many other Jewish composers are representative of first-generation American Jews," who, she notes, "were very secular Jews who might have had a Jewish upbringing and Jewish education as children, but whose Jewish identity had very little, if any, impact on their musical output."
Kenny Vance
It was more about silver and gold than Chanukah gelt: "Composers like Berlin found a ready audience for the products of their creativity, and they found a larger audience and, therefore, a significant source of revenue."
Assimilation is no longer the point, chimes in Rabin. It's just that "there is no money in Chanukah songs."
Don't tell that to Adam Sandler, whose daffy ditty "The Hanukkah Song" put the "ch" in ca-ching (if not the tile). That 1994 ode by Operaman (co-written with Lewis Morton and Ian Maxtone-Graham of TV's Saturday Night Live, where it was introduced) is a jokey jolt on the holiday that made "Dreidel, Dreidel" spinning for the exits.
It's the same old song today, when a Kenny Vance — whose parents knew him as Kenny Rosenberg — records Mr. Santa.
The same old song with a delicious old-is-new-again spin, that is: Vance's album incorporates the R&B and doo-wop that do this founding member of Jay and the Americans justice.
But how does the decades-long popular singer/composer square his own Jewish upbringing with bringing Mr. Santa into being?
"I don't look at it as a religious thing," says Vance, who will be performing along with his group of the past 20 years, the Planotones, bringing their '50s/ '60s-influenced style to the Sellersville (Pa.) Theatre on New Year's Eve."It's like folk music, Americana."
But when all is said and sung, this all comes down to one question: Is it good for the Jews?
Well, it's not necessarily bad. And when you think of it, says Levy, the cantor, "there is value in a musical expression of holiday joy; that is inherently a Jewish value in itself."
Joy to the world? Why not, maintains Rabbi Bob Alper, whose congregations these days extend beyond the pulpit to comedy clubs and national TV, where he's made a major impression as a comic and anecdotal author.
Bah, humbug! he exclaims of those who consider a "Silver Bells" tarnishing the mettle of Jewish composers. "It's as much a betrayal as is the 'Requiem' composed by Giuseppe Verdi, an avowed atheist and free-thinker. In other words, no."
Sometimes, Chanukah just doesn't sing out to Jewish kids, he avows. "Like most kids, I was raised in an environment of third-rate Chanukah music and better Christmas music — though I've always thought that 'Little Drummer Boy' is the musical equivalent of waterboarding."
Again, it's not personal, just business, as those famous Jews — the Corleones — would say. After all, was Leonard Bernstein excommunicated from Judaism for pursuing mass appeal by composing "Mass"?
Alper — with roots in Vermont and Philadelphia — says good music is good music. Conversely, were gentile singers/ composers who worked in Jewish music drummed out of the business for their cross-over capabilities?
"My parents adored hearing Kol Nidre sung by Perry Como," adds Alper, "and preferred him to the volunteer at our synagogue who sang it, annually, off-key."
After all, notes composer Rabin, it doesn't mean one forsakes the Jewish religion because Rudolph's red nose glows amid less illuminating Jewish music.
In writing for the masses, like his ancestral artists-in-arms, he doesn't just target Christmas. Indeed, forget Rudolph's red nose; Rabin's next song would make the reindeer's cheeks blush:
Next up for the local composer is an earful that will jingle someone's bells: "Darlin', Won't You Put Down Your iPhone When We Make Love."


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