This article first appeared in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue of The Jewish Post & News. It's hard to believe, but it was only a year ago that Rabbi Matthew Leibl entertained a packed room of mostly seniors in the Adult Lounge of the Asper Campus with a medley of famous xmas songs - all written by Jewish composers.
By BERNIE BELLAN
Rabbi Matthew Leibl is not your usual rabbi – but he sure can command a room.
With all his considerable talents – as a clever and always witty speaker, as a terrific keyboardist and pleasant singer, and with a range of interests from that go anywhere from Jewish scholarship to sports, Rabbi Matthew can both entertain – and educate, often simultaneously.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that on Tuesday, December 10, 2019, the adult lounge of the Asper Campus was packed – entirely with older adults mind you, who were there to hear Rabbi Matthew give a presentation that was titled “Oy to the World: The Jewish Contribution to Christmas”. (The name of the event itself was a pretty good clue that this was not going to be your typical “drash”.)
It turns out that Rabbi Matthew did do his research for what was to follow. He unveiled a seamless narrative, mixing well-known Christmas songs with stories about their composers, combining everything into a narrative that demonstrated how so many Jews have influenced our modern attitudes to Christmas.
Of course, nothing that Rabbi Matthew does is predictable, so when he greeted the audience with the first few lines of “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, I would dare say that most of us there were expecting him to reveal that well-known song was written by a Jew.
Aha – gotcha! It was written by Meredith Wilson – most famous undoubtedly for having written “The Music Man” – or, as Rabbi Matthew announced to the audience: “not a Jew”.
The tone was set, therefore, for what would turn out to be an evening of surprises, in which Rabbi Matthew would sing a well-known Christmas song, and then follow the song with what was almost always an unexpected story, either about how the song was written, or about how it came to be universally popular (often when the composer himself thought it would be a flop).
But first, Rabbi Matthew told another funny story about how, as a child, he misinterpreted the name of a well-known Christmas carol: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. To his mind, Rabbi Matthew said, he thought it was a song about his “Zaida Harold” (the late Harold Pollock) – “Hark, the ‘Harold” Angels Sing”.
At that point, Rabbi Matthew launched into playing – and singing, words to a song that just didn’t seem familiar. Here’s what he sang:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North
Can you guess that those are the words in the introduction to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”? As Rabbi Matthew explained it, however, we never actually hear the introduction to the song on any of its many recordings – and the image that introduction evokes is hardly one of a “white Christmas”. In fact, time and time again, as we were to learn, songs that have come to conjure up images of snow-lined streets, fireplaces blazing, and other such stereotypical Christmas images, were actually composed in Los Angeles – often during heat waves when various composers were all trying to cool themselves off by imagining cold winter scenes!
In any event, “White Christmas” was composed by Irving Berlin – born Israel Isidore Beilin in 1888 in Russia. A prodigy at an early age, Berlin’s first big hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Berlin is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of all time. With so many hits to his name, it’s hard to realize they were all written by the same person. For instance, Berlin also wrote “God Bless America” (in 1938), which was a way for him to show his appreciation for the country that had taken in his family.
“White Christmas”, as Rabbi Matthew told the audience, was originally written in 1940 for the movie, “Holiday Inn”, which wasn’t released until 1942. (The introduction was scrapped when it was sung in the movie.)
The song, however, sung by Bing Crosby, was first played on the radio on Christmas day, 1941. It became an immediate sensation – and the Bing Crosby version went on to sell over 50 million copies, making it the best-selling Christmas single of all time. (Altogether, various different recordings of the song have sold over 100 million copies.)
Not only is “White Christmas” a song that tugged at the heartstrings at a time when America had just been plunged into what would become the second most costly war (in terms of lives lost) after the American Civil War, as Rabbi Matthew explained, it also set two other precedents: It was the first commercial success for a Christmas song and it was the first-ever secular Christmas song.
The song also set the pattern for future composers to follow, in terms of its beat which, as Rabbi Matthew noted, was “A,A,B,A”. “The time repeats, but the words change,” Rabbi Matthew explained.
Having begun with what is undoubtedly the most successful Christmas song of all time, Rabbi Matthew then took a step back in time to play another song that wasn’t really a Christmas song in the sense that it doesn’t mention the name “Christmas” at all, but nonetheless has come to be associated with the Christmas season: “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, music by Felix Bernard, and written in 1934.
“The words to the song are terrible,” Rabbi Matthew suggested. He gave as an example these lines:
“He’ll say ‘are you married?’, we’ll say ‘no, man’‘
But you can do the job when you’re in town’ “
Moving back to the 1940s again – which turned out to be a most productive decade when it came to composing great Christmas songs, Rabbi Matthew sang “I’ll be home for Christmas”, released in 1943, music by Walter Kent (a.k.a. Walter Kaufman). The song was also first recorded by Bing Crosby.
As with “White Christmas”, this song captured the mood of America, with its famous final line “I’ll be home, if only in my dreams.” At the time, while America was fully at war with Japan in the Pacific, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were also in England preparing for what would turn out to be D-day the next year.
As it was, there was also quite a bit of controversy attached to “I’ll be home for Christmas”, as another composer, by the name of “Buck Ram” (whose name I can’t help but think would be great for a male porn star), claimed he had met Walter Kent and lyricist Kim Gannon at a bar, where he had given them a copy of the song. His name was eventually added to the record label as a co-writer and he received royalties.
The next song on Rabbi Leibl’s list was “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (or as it is actually titled, “The Christmas Song”), music by Mel Tormé (whose name was really Tormé!). As I noted at the beginning of this article, this was one of those songs written in L.A. during a torrid summer heat wave.
Rabbi Leibl quoted Mel Tormé as having said this about his song: “It was not one of my favourites, but it was my annuity!” The song is also noteworthy for being the first song ever to drop the name “Santa Claus” into it. (Boy, you have to wonder what Christmas would be like if so many Jews hadn’t fashioned its modern-day image.)
Keeping with the theme of heat waves, the next song was also written in the same 1945 heat wave that engulfed Los Angeles: “Let it Snow”, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jule Styne.
Here are some comments made by Rabbi Leibl about the song: They (the composers) were trying to think cool thoughts…there’s no mention of Christmas…the song appears at the end of “Die Hard” – one of the two greatest Christmas movies ever made (the other being “Home Alone”). You can kind of get a sense of the era in which Rabbi Leibl grew up by his loving references to the 1980s.
As with every other song he played during the evening, the next one was accompanied by a very amusing anecdote.
The song was “City Sidewalks, Silver Bells” - written in 1951 by Jay Livingston (born Jay Levison) (music) and Ray Evans (lyrics) – both Jewish. The duo also went on to write “Que Sera Sera” – which is probably the first song I myself ever remember from a movie.
“Silver Bells” was originally called “Tinkle Bells”, Rabbi Matthew explained, but when Jay Livingston went home to his wife and told her that he and Evans had composed a song called “Tinkle Bells”, her reactions was: “Are you crazy? Do you know what ‘tinkle’ means?” (Actually, a reference to Wikipedia expands upon Rabbi Matthew’s story. Apparently, Jay Livingston didn’t know what his wife was talking about: “Of course, Jay and Ray had never heard it used in that way. ‘Tinkle’ (for ‘pee’) is a woman’s term. As Jay said in the act that they used to do, ‘When I was a boy, I said “Pee-pee”. Come to think of it, I STILL say “Pee-pee’”, only more frequently’.”
In any event, the song title was changed to “Silver Bells” – and although it was first sung by William Frawley (who went on to play Fred Mertz in “I Love Lucy”), it was made famous when it was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1950.
Forward to 1962 – and the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Where’s this going, you’re probably wondering?) Rabbi Leibl told a story about someone named Gloria Shayne who, when she was growing up, happened to live next door to a family by the name of Kennedy (as Gerry Posner would say, “as in John Fitzgerald Kennedy’ ”).
Gloria Shayne and her then-husband, Noël Regney, wrote the song, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" as a plea for peace. Something else that set this song apart from every other song Rabbi Leibl sang that evening, as he noted, was that it was the only one that mentioned the name “Christ”.
Many of you reading this might remember the “Andy Williams Show”, which was popular in the 1960s. But, did you know that the song “It’s the most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written for that show? It was written in 1963 by Sydney Pola (born Sidney Edward Pollacsek) and George Wyle (born Bernard Weissman, also famous for composing the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island”, a very important show for Rabbi Leibl’s parents’ generation). By the way, although I was taking copious notes during this very important lecture, I have had to resort to Googling a good portion of the information you’re reading here. I can’t imagine how much work Rabbi Matthew put into putting together his song list. He really should do his show again; I’m sure it would attract an even bigger audience next year.
Next, we were told we’re going to hear songs by “the greatest Christmas composer of all time!” But, what about all the songs we just heard? Who could top some of those songwriters?
It turned out that it was Johnny Marks. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia: John David Marks (November 10, 1909 – September 3, 1985) was an American songwriter. Although he was Jewish, he specialized in Christmas songs and wrote many holiday standards, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (a hit for Gene Autry and others), “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (a hit for Brenda Lee), “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (recorded by the Quinto Sisters and later by Burl Ives)” and even more.
While Rabbi Leibl told one story after another about each of the above songs, he really outdid himself when he told the story how “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” came into being. The story goes that Marx’s sister was married to a guy by the name of Robert Ray.
Ray was working for the department store Montgomery Ward, working as a low-level copywriter. Although Rabbi Leibl described what happened in great detail, it’s such a beautiful story that I thought I’d quote extensively from the Wikipedia article describing how the song came into being:
Sometime in the 1930s, May moved to Chicago and took a job as a low-paid in-house advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward. In early 1939, May’s boss at Montgomery Ward asked him to write a “cheery” Christmas book for shoppers and suggested that an animal be the star of the book. Montgomery Ward had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money and be a nice good-will gesture.
May’s wife, Evelyn, had contracted cancer in 1937 and was quite ill as he started on the book in early 1939. May “drew on memories of his own painfully shy childhood when creating his Rudolph stories.” He decided on making a reindeer the central character of the book because his then four-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the deer in the Chicago zoo. He ran verses and chapters of the Rudolph poem by Barbara to make sure they entertained children. The final version of the poem was first read to Barbara and his wife’s parents…
In 1948, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote (words and music) an adaptation of Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy Gene Autry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas”.
And with that, the entire audience joined in the singing of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” All that was needed to cap off the evening was for everyone to adjourn to The Shanghai (which, alas, is no longer) – and which, Rabbi Leibl recalled, was where his family always used to go for Christmas.
Next on the list of off-beat stories for this paper: A scholarly dissertation on David Steinberg’s famous line that almost got him thrown off the Smothers Brothers Show for good: “Let’s put the ‘Ch’ back into Chanukah – and the ‘Christ’ back into Christmas.”
You can watch a compilation of Rabbi Matthew singing popular xmas songs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWyZ1djqxaI