Jewish songwriters haven’t shied away from penning Christmas classics

Dr. David Margolis has been a practicing gastroenterologist in the north St. Louis County area for the past 35 years. He lives in Creve Coeur and can be reached at [email protected]

By Dr. David Margolis

Christmas has never been my favorite time of year. Some Jews substitute Hanukkah but it has never worked for me.  

Although I listen to the annual Christmas renditions that blare incessantly on the radio station throughout the season, it was only recently I discovered the strong Jewish connection to yuletide favorites. Mel Torme and Bob Wells, Jewish boys in their early 20s wrote “The Christmas Song” in 35 minutes on a hot summer day in Los Angeles. I’m willing to bet they never roasted any chestnuts on an open fire, or experienced Jack Frost nipping at their Semitic noses. I guess if they ever visited a church they might have seen “Yuletide carols sung by a choir” but I doubt in LA they ever witnessed “folks dressed up like Eskimos.” 

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“White Christmas” is another classic. It was written by Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline), who grew up on the lower East Side of New York as the son of a kosher butcher.  It’s unlikely that he had much familiarity with “treetops that glisten” or “children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.” 

For the past 20 years I have taken call for my physician partners on the Christian holy day. As I roll out of bed that morning, I glance out the window hoping the streets won’t be icy for the trip to the hospital. I’m certainly not humming “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” written by the Jewish duo of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.   

On my way to the hospital, I marvel at the lack of traffic at seven in the morning as I try to imagine where the few cars on the road are headed.  I doubt any of them contain lawyers, accountants or business people; they’re still snuggled between the sheets dreaming about the gifts Santa might bring them. Maybe the occupants are going home from a raucous time of all night partying or getting up early to see their grandchildren open gifts or looking for a store that’s open to buy bread or a quart of milk. 

Soon I’m obsessing over the delusion that nobody except me is going to work on that day.” I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Walter Kent (born Walter Kauffman) and Buck Ram is certainly not a song that I want to hear on the car stereo at that moment.   

As a kid I always felt like a misfit during the holiday season. Lighting Hanukkah candles and watching them melt was the most excitement that took place at our house.  I found spinning a dreidel was a dull way to pass the time and that was well before the advent of video games. Potato latkes have always given me indigestion. There was never a thought that “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (a song written by Fred Coots, religion unknown, but first sung by Eddie Cantor, born Edward Israel Iskowitz). When other youngsters were scanning the heavens l for “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” written by Jewish composer Johnny Marks, I was in bed fast asleep.

Around the middle of December, I hear many gentiles ask each other, “Are you ready for Christmas?” I, too, have been asked that question on many occasions by acquaintances who don’t know I’m Jewish.

At first I tried to explain that I didn’t celebrate the holiday but the person making the inquiry seemed so taken aback that I stopped responding that way several years ago. Now I tell them, “I am absolutely 100 percent ready for Christmas and I have done every bit of my Christmas shopping.” I might even sing the refrain written by Felix Bernard “to face unafraid the plans that we made walking in a Winter Wonderland.” The questioner usually tells me how lucky I am to have completed my purchases since she (often a nurse) still has more to make. 

I’ve encountered a number of patients who become depressed at Christmastime. They often complain of spending time with relatives who they don’t like or not spending time with relatives who they do like. Some have memories of deceased loved ones with whom they can no longer celebrate. Others complain of not having money to buy gifts for children or grandchildren. Not uncommon, people exhaust themselves hosting holiday gathering; others dread being alone on the special day. 

Obviously not everyone shares the sentiments of George Wyle (born Bernard Weissman) who wrote “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the ubiquitous Johnny Marks who composed “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” The syrupy optimistic lyrics of “Silver Bells,” written by Jay Livingstone (born Jacob Levinson) and Ray Evans, might not appeal to those who are feeling lugubrious on the yuletide.

Come to think of it, maybe Jews are more fortunate than Christians in not having to endure the stress of the Christmas season. There is no pressure on us to buy gifts, have parties or visit with obnoxious relatives. The pang of self-pity that I reserve for myself driving to work on that day is minor compared to the angst suffered by some Christians. Maybe Jewish composers wrote those sappy happy tunes because they only experienced Christmas as outsiders. After all, the saddest song I hear on the holiday is Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Blue Christmas” and it was written Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson, two gentiles.