Neige Bein wrote the following essay as part of her training with Adventure Judaism’s Bat Yisrael* program, an alternative to Bat Mitzvah.
An independent learning project (ILP) is a research project aiming to find out more information about a topic that you do by yourself. I chose to research “Why are so many Christmas songs written by Jews?” because I thought it was interesting that Jews wrote most of the famous Christmas songs. But mostly because my mom told me to.
Did you know that these Christmas songs were all written by Jews?
- White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
- Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith)
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin)
- Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie)
- Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow (Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn)
- Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (Johnny Marks)
- It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Edward Pola, George Wyle)
- Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish)
- Do You Know It’s Christmas (Midge Ure, Bob Geldof)
- Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire (Robert Wells, Mel Tormé)
From the 1880s to the 1920s, over 1 million Jews immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side. They were mostly from Eastern Europe and left because of Anti-Semitism. Jews in Europe experienced pogroms, the ransacking of their homes and businesses, especially in Poland and Russia, where my ancestors are from. In the 1920s, people were recovering from World War 1. In the 1930s Nazi Germany was getting stronger as was Anti-Semitism and so Jews moved to different countries.
From this project I discovered that the reasons Jews wrote Christmas songs had to do with: Assimilation, shame, opportunity, and inclusion.
Part of the reason Jews wrote Christmas songs is because they wanted to blend in. They were different in many ways. They didn’t speak the same languages, most of them were poor because they could not bring much money with them when they fled their homelands and they celebrated different holidays. By writing Christmas songs, Jews were including themselves in the most popular Christian holiday.
Another part of it was because they were ashamed of being Jewish as they were different. People often made fun of how they looked, spoke and dressed.
Because Jews were different they were not allowed the same jobs as Gentiles. One of the few careers available was in the entertainment industry. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is still ranked 1# selling song of all times. Writing songs was a way to try and earn good money, rise above immigrant poverty and potentially become rich.
Most Jews in the entertainment business were rebelling against their culture and their parents. They were rebelling against their culture by writing songs about different religions and rebelling against their parents by pursuing unconventional careers.
Jewish songwriters were making Christmas relatable to all cultures by writing songs about winter and other secular themes. For example, writing songs about chestnuts, reindeer, and snow as opposed to songs about Jesus.
From this project, I learned about not only how Jews contributed to the success of Christmas but, also some Jewish history, Jewish immigration, antisemitism. I also learned about how people can start with nothing and work hard to make something big. I am so proud to be Jewish!
*Bat Yisrael is a coming-of-age ceremony that enables students who are not ready to take on the rigors of Hebrew studies to experience growth in Jewish identity, cultivate a love of being Jewish, and affirm their Judaism. Neige’s ceremony in Squamish British Columbia was officiated by Adventure Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith.