The Arty Semite

Great American Songbook on Display

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Wherever we go this time of year, we can’t escape hearing Christmas songs — be they on the radio, sung by carolers, or piped in as Muzak in stores and public spaces. It gets to the point at which it seems there is an audio loop of holiday classics running non-stop in our heads.

Courtesy of Photofest
Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg sing with the cast of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

What many people may not realize is that many of these classic Christmas songs were written by Jews. For instance, “White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Silver Bells” was by Jay Livingston (born Jacob Levison). Given their authorship, it is not surprising that these songs were heavy on the cold weather, family and friends, and devoid of traditional Christian religious iconography.

Visitors to “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs 1910-1965,” a travelling exhibition showing until December 22 at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, can learn about these and other Jewish composers and lyricists who dominated on Broadway and in Hollywood during the middle decades of the 20th century. The exhibition, curated by David Lehman, was developed by Nextbook, Inc. and based on Lehman’s 2009 book of the same name.

According to the exhibit, “The soundtrack of the American romance — as heard on the car radio and seen on the silver screen in the 1930s and 40s — was largely the product of a Jewish imagination.” Eight panels of text and images highlights the big Jewish names behind that “soundtrack,” otherwise known as “The Great American Songbook.” Younger visitors are introduced to and older ones are reminded of Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein.

Another name that appears is Yip Harburg, most famous for his lyrics for “The Wizard of Oz.” “He’s my favorite lyricist, but he is underappreciated,” music theater historian, writer and reviewer Bonnie Weiss told The Arty Semite. She, in her lectures and courses, tries to shine the spotlight on lyricists whom history has accorded less fame than composers.

According to Weiss, it is only in more recent times that attention has been paid to the Jewish identities of these great talents. “A Fine Romance” highlights the fact that Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Al Jolson were all the sons of cantors, and that many Jewish composers wrote in the minor keys traditional to Jewish music. In fact, the non-Jewish Cole Porter apparently employed this musical technique to write what he called “Jewish tunes” in a bid to be successful. Listeners can hear the results in his “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Those knowledgeable of Jewish liturgy can also hear parts of the Torah blessing melody in the opening chords of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Weiss posits that when these composers and lyricists were in the prime of their careers, “there was this tremendous urge to assimilate” that would have prevented them from talking about their Jewishness. “Similarly, it would have been insensitive for a reporter to ask them about it,” Weiss said. “These were gifted individuals — some formally trained and some not — who entered show business in a time when it was one of the only ones open to them because of anti-Semitism.”

“It really makes it alive to realize that Jewish heritage produced 90% of the popular music during the era when it came from musical theater,” Weiss reflected. Her favorite composer was Jerome Kern, “who had the greatest gift for melody.” She is also fond of Dorothy Fields, who does not appear in “A Fine Romance,” despite the fact that she is the only woman lyricist to have been inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

This omission points to the shortcoming of the exhibition, which is that it serves only as an introductory overview to its subject. But it can at least pique the interest of viewers to listen more carefully to ubiquitous holiday songs.


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