Beliefs

Why Jews skipped Hanukkah and wrote the most beloved Christmas songs

"Kenny Ellis Hanukkah Swings!" album cover. Photo courtesy of Favored Nations Records

(RNS) Christians don’t seem to mind that so many beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews, and Jews tend to reel off the list with pride.

White Christmas. Let It Snow. Santa Baby. I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. Silver Bells. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Those not mentioned here could fill an album.

But why didn’t the Jews write any similarly iconic songs for their holiday that falls around Christmastime: Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights?

“I Have a Little Dreidl”?  Great song … if you’re 4.

There are reasons that Jews are good at Christmas songs and why so many of these songs became so popular. And there are reasons why Jews didn’t write similarly catchy tunes for Hanukkah — or any other Jewish holiday.

But first, a little music history.

In the first half of the 20th century, Jews flocked to the music industry. It was one business where they didn’t face overwhelming anti-Semitism, said Michael Feinstein, the Emmy Award-winning interpreter of American musical standards.

“White Christmas,” written by Jewish lyricist Irving Berlin, topped the charts in 1942 and launched popular Christmas music, encouraging many others — Jews and non-Jews — to write more odes to the holiday.

And although celebrating the birth of Christ was not something these Jewish songwriters would want to do, they could feel comfortable composing more secular Christmas singles.

“The Christmas songs that are popular are not about Jesus, but they’re about sleigh bells and Santa and the trappings of Christmas,” Feinstein said. “They’re not religious songs.”

Michael Feinstein at the Palladium in Carmel, Ind., on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. Photo by AJ Mast

Michael Feinstein at the Palladium in Carmel, Ind., on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. Photo by AJ Mast

In their music and lyrics, Jews captured Christmas not only as a wonderful, wintry time for family gatherings, but also as an American holiday. What they drew on, said Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, an expert on Jews and popular culture at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinatti, was their background as the children of European-born Jews, or as immigrants themselves, in the case of Russian-born Berlin and others.

Jewish songwriters’ own successful assimilation and gratitude to Am

Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, an expert on Jews and popular culture at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinatti. Photo by Mary Jo McClain

Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, an expert on Jews and popular culture at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinatti. Photo by Mary Jo McClain

erica pervades their midcentury Christmas and other songs, and appealed to a country that wanted to feel brave and united as it fought World War II.

“These songs made Christmas a kind of national celebration, almost a patriotic celebration,” Kanter said.

The irreligious nature of these Christmas songs may not sit well with pious Christians, said Feinstein, who is Jewish and who cut “A Michael Feinstein Christmas,” among many other albums. But they are now part of the fabric of our larger culture, he said, and “any singer who is a singer of the American songbook will sing Christmas songs,” said Feinstein. “We all sing them.”

Feinstein is in good Jewish company. Barbra Streisand made “A Christmas Album.” Neil Diamond cut not only “A Christmas Album,” but also “A Christmas Album, Volume II,” and then a “Cherry, Cherry Christmas.” This year, Idina Menzel, who started out singing at bar mitzvahs and is best-known as the strong, melodic voice in the hit movie “Frozen,” just came out with the very Christmas-y “Holiday Wishes.” This list is far from exhaustive.

And how about Hanukkah songs?

First, singers want an audience, and with Jews making up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Christians nearly 80 percent, the natural market for Hanukkah tunes is relatively tiny. Though the story of Hanukkah is about religious freedom, a theme Americans can relate to, few know the tale of the ancient Maccabees — how they threw off their Hellenistic oppressors, and the drop of oil which miraculously lit their lamp for eight days.

Feinstein, who was raised in a Conservative synagogue in Columbus, Ohio, said many people have tried to get him to lend his voice to a Hanukkah song, but he’s just not that interested.

"Kenny Ellis Hanukkah Swings!" album cover. Photo courtesy of Favored Nations Records

“Kenny Ellis Hanukkah Swings!” album cover. Photo courtesy of Favored Nations Records

“They usually are in a minor key,” he said. “And there isn’t as much imagery that one can put into a Hanukkah song compared to Christmas.”

There are still plenty of tuneful and moving Hanukkah songs, some of them in major keys — the rousing “Al Hanisim,” for example. But many are written in languages other than English — Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino — and aren’t going to get much airplay in the U.S.

But a growing body of Hanukkah music aims to break through the subdued and somber stereotype.

In 1982, for example, the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary first performed “Light One Candle,” a social action song that invokes the Maccabees’ struggle.

The Jewish reggae star Matisyahu came out with “Miracle” in 2011. And the Maccabeats, an a capella group based at Yeshiva University, remade the pop song “Dynamite” into a 2010 Hanukkah hit called “Candlelight.”

And then there’s Kenny Ellis, the cantor at Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, Calif., who is on a mission to convince Jews and non-Jews alike that Hanukkah songs can be a zippy part of the national songbook. Each Hanukkah, Ellis sings from his 2005 album, “Hanukkah Swings,” a big-band take on some of the most well-known Hanukkah songs, starting with “Swingin’ Dreidel.”

To Ellis’ delight, Feinstein once sang “Swingin’ Dreidel” in his New York nightclub. It wouldn’t hurt if more Jewish singers tried a Hanukkah song or two, Ellis said. Maybe a whole album.

“I love all the Jewish performers that do Christmas albums,” Ellis said. “But what’s the big deal about doing a Hanukkah album? Does anyone think that if Barbra Streisand did a Hanukkah album, that her career would be finished?”

YS/MG END MARKOE

 

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

15 Comments

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  • The great things about the secular Christmas songs is that everyone, Jewish, Christian, Secular and all, can join in. Secular Christmas songs have helped to turn Christmas into a festival that everyone can enjoy, and that’s all to the good.

  • “Christians don’t seem to mind that so many beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews,”

    Garrison Keillor seemed to mind a few years ago when he complained about “all those lousy songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year.”

  • Despite constant attempts by shills to paint the truth one way, facts challenging it can come through on a regular basis.
    Very revealing that the point is raised about market and earnings potential comes up in terms of the writing of Christmas over, say, Hanukkah songs. Why must profit be the sole motivation? Couldn’t the Jewish composers and song writers produce something just because they loved their religion? Must everything they do have a price tag attached? Joseph Mohr and Franz Xavier Gruber wrote the seminal “Silent Night” for what they considered may only be a sole performance in a local church!
    But, the, an indication can be seen in Michael Feinstein’s comment that Jewish songs “usually are in a minor key” and that he can’t see “imagery” to fill a Hanukkah song. It’s accepted that major keys express exuberance, optimism and good will, while minor keys are associated with depression and misgiving. A shill would say that it’s natural that Jewish sentiments should be so relentlessly sour since they, frankly, it is claimed, suffered so much. Christians were killed by the hundreds in the early days and there are reports of mass killings even today. But Jewish music seems to be depressive all the way back, even before events reported in the more recent past. But, then, too, religion is supposed to be a bright spot. God did not write His laws to reflect only suspicion and fatalism! Even if you have gone through any tribulations, religious music is supposed to be encouraging, it should focus on the principles, not on your personal history! But that seems to define Judaism, namely, the Jews, themselves. Their celebrations, holy days, feast days commemorate the huts they lived in during their time in the desert; they proclaim military victories over enemies; they establish the “new year” for things like trees, fruits, grains and cattle, for purposes of settling legal debts; they applaud their overrunning The Palestine and arranging the British Mandate to give them sole control over the land! They don’t even have special days for their Prophets. In short, the Jews’ religion is themselves, they are their own religion, or, in fact, Judaism can be seen less as a religion than a cultural structure used to maintain societal cohesion and solidarity, through emphasis of a shared heritage.

  • Streisand’s album also includes the songs “Avinu Malcheinu” and “One God”. Definitely “multi-holiday season” feeling. So it’s interesting that she called it a “Christmas” album.

  • I don’t own any of it and I don’t voluntarily play it. I don’t mind it, but I don’t really enjoy Christmas music of any kind.

    There is a great deal of joyous Jewish music from all over the world. People who say that it is usually in a minor key don’t really know about Jewish music.

  • I think it’s saying that Hanukkah music has usually been in a minor key, not all Jewish music in general.

  • I do find it both interesting and a positive action that for the 2nd or 3rd year in a row SiriusXM radio has dedicated a channel for Chanukah music during the holiday, in addition to the assorted Christmas music channels they are streaming. Some of the melodies are definitely in a minor key, but others are certainly in major keys. They mix in a varied selection of yiddish, hebrew and english lyrics, and artists from today’s Jewish hip hop to Theodore Bikel, and everyone in between.

  • Feinstein missed the boat. “I’m just not that interested”.That’s sad,but that’s okay.We’ve got the Yeshiva University Maccabeats.We don’t need Feinstein.
    I’ve never even heard of him.

    “There’s just not that much imagery that one can put into a Chanukah Video.”

    May I direct him the Maccabeats”Candelight”? for starters.

    Have any of his songs gotten him an invitation to the White House? The Maccabeats “Candelight”got over a million youtube hits within days of its first being posted.It now has 10 million youtube hits.This is a group of non Professional, Yeshiva University Students singing between classes,with a 10 hour or more school day(My brother went to Y.U. I know the drill)

  • What an incredibly anti-semitic,as well as ignorant comment. “ because Frankly,it is claimed that Jews suffered so much?” Were the Crusades a “claim”?
    How about the Spanish Inquisition?The Blood Libels?Pograms? Christians have been murdering Jews in the name of Christ as long as Christians have existed,while Christ,of course,was a Jew,and I’m guessing,would not approve of Christians slaughtering others of HIS faith in his name.
    Was the extermination of over 6 million Jews by Hitler and his cohorts,and the all too willing Christians, with the Pope all too glad to look on,and do nothing to help Jews, also a “Claim”of Jewish suffering.
    We Jews did not overrun Palestine.Why don’t you read some actual history.Read of all the slaughters of Jews who were murdered in the Arab Countries. Israel was attacked by all its Arab neighbors after the State was established,not by Jews,but by the League of Nations,not the British Mandate.It was a worldwide decision.
    Jews don’t celebrate death.Or did you not notice that it was your beloved,”oppressed “Palestinians who danced in the streets the day some of their Muslim brethren flew plans into the Twin Towers and murder over 3,200
    Americans? It was on T.V.Did you miss it? There wasn’t single Jew celebrating the terrorist attack of 9/11 ,or any other. Jews don’t celebrate the death of Palestians.Jews don’t strap bombs to themselves and detonate them in the middle of the street,Pizza shops.malls, discos,hotels,embassies all over the world,and so forth.
    You know nothing about our religions.We have plenty of happy songs.This is country predominated by Christians,which is why you haven’t heard those songs.
    Btw,while you’re celebrating the poor ,oppressed Palestinians,ask yourself a question honestly: would you feel safer sleeping in a Jewish Home,or that of a Palestinian?Are you willing to visit Gaza? If you had to choose living in an apartment in Tel Aviv or in Ramallah,which would you choose?Remember,the building in Ramallah has munitions stored amongsts the residents.You might want to take that into consideration.OR not.

  • I completely agree with Mr. Ellis’ feelings about there being a need for more
    upbeat Hanukkah music. I only wish that he would publish his tunes from “Hanukkah Swings”. I have a big band and I would LOVE to add those tunes
    to my holiday concerts. C’mon Kenny, your tunes are great. Get them out there for the rest of the world!!

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