A Merry Jewish Christmas?
By Avraham Azrieli*
Christmas as a Jewish holiday? This proposition usually earns mockery or a stern lecture accompanied by clenched fists. Christmas is the birthday of Jesus Christ, the Christian messiah whose crucifixion unleashed a perpetual blood libel against the Jewish people.
For many centuries, “Jesus killers!” was a rallying cry for attacking Jewish communities, for robbing, raping, knifing, spearing, axing, burning, drawing, quartering, hanging, drowning, shooting, and torturing innocent Jews, or at least expelling them en mass from their homes in Germany, England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. As the Reverend James Carroll concludes in Constantine’s Sword: The Church and Jews (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), the Nazi mindset “had its foundation in Christianity,” and the Holocaust was the natural culmination of the “Church's modus operandi down the centuries.”
So how could Jews partake in Christ’s birthday celebration?
The answer, perhaps, starts with another question: Do millions of Christians, who sing the Christmas hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” know that its composer, Felix Mendelssohn, was the grandson of the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn?
And how about “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas,” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, Jewish kids from Pittsburgh and Buffalo?
Or this: “He sings a love song, as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland,” by Felix Bernard, born in Brooklyn as Felix Bernhardt to Russian-German Jewish immigrants. And “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” by Sammy Cahn-Cohen and Jule Styne, who also wrote ‘The Christmas Waltz.’
Then there’s the heartfelt promise that “I’ll be Home for Christmas…you can count on me…,” the lyrics that touched millions of listeners during hard times, written by Walter Kent, born to a Yiddish-speaking Kauffman family in New York. He wrote with Samuel Buck Ram, a Jewish partnership that also gave us “Only you…can make this world…seem right…”
To really get going at Christmastime, we sing: “Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, let’s go, let’s look at the snow…” This urging came from Mitchell Parrish, a good Christian name if there ever was one, only that he was born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky in Lithuania and ended up also writing lyrics for the all-American Jazz immortal ‘Stardust’ with Hoagy Carmichael.
And who wouldn’t agree that “There’s no place like home for the holidays…” by Al Stillman, another Jew, just like Joan Ellen Javits, who co-wrote ‘Santa Baby.’
Arguably the biggest contribution to Christmas came from the man who wrote these hits (sing with me!):
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer…”
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day…”
“Rockin’ around the Christmas tree…”
“A holly jolly Christmas…”
“Run, Rudolph, run…”
These five songs, so instrumental to the Christmas spirit, were written by the Jewish virtuoso Johnny Marks, a Bronze Star recipient for his battlefield courage during World War II.
But no one did more for American songwriting and for Christmas than the Jewish songwriter who gave us “God bless America…” and “I’ve got my love to keep me warm…,” when he wrote “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”
I’ve always wondered about this genius, this tireless (despite confessing “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning…”) fountain of immortal songs, this Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline, son of an unemployed immigrant cantor from Belarus. What Christmases had he “used to know” while growing up dirt poor on the Jewish lower east side of Manhattan? How could he describe so aptly the longing for a white Christmas, the sadness of every GI who had to spend Christmas in the balmy trenches of the South Pacific, the swampy rivers of Vietnam, or the scorching sands of the Arabian Gulf? How did he know what they felt at Christmas so far away from home?
I can’t answer for him, but my guess is that he knew because we all experience Christmas no matter what our faith is, or what language our parents spoke. He knew because old Christmas had begotten an alter ego that surpassed Christ and exceeded religion and evolved into a universal holiday that’s rich with Christian traditions and Jewish creativity.
Without detracting from Christmas services held by the faithful in various denominations, all of us outside the Church walls experience an inclusive, embracing Christmas that infuses civilization every December. We experience it while going to work, walking down the street, shopping at the mall, or watching TV with the kids.
And we experience it through music, because songs are the common language of all people, Jews and Christians alike, as we wish each other, in the words of Irving Berlin: “May your days be merry and bright…and may all your Christmases be white.”
* Avraham Azrieli is the author of “Christmas for Joshua,” a new novel about a family confronting a painful crisis at Christmas. www.AzrieliBooks.com
This essay may be copied, forwarded, or shared in whole without specific permission.