I’m sitting on the downtown A train, diagonally across from a shortish guy in a Victorian-era top hat and long topcoat. He’s listening to an mp3 recorder, stopping, rewinding, repeating, singing along to a famous Jerry Herman tune from “Mame.” But the lyrics are a bit metamorphosed.
“We need a little Torah,” the guy sings audibly. A vignette that might seem an all-too-typical “New York moment.”
Then a young African-American woman gets on the train. She sings a snatch of a gospel tune in a rich, warm mezzo. Top Hat turns and looks at her, then shrugs a little and his attention returns to the sing he is, obviously, rehearsing.
This is not going to be yet another essay on the December Dilemma, despite appearances to the contrary. I found the little scene on the A train amusing rather than symbolic, and it wouldn’t do to make more of it than is there. However, with the always resourceful New York Festival of Song offering a program billed as “A Goyishe Christmas to You” on Dec. 16, the relationship between Jewish composers and songwriters like the aforementioned Mr. Herman, and that end-of-the-year celebration of the birth of Jesus inevitably comes in for some examination.
In what is surely one of the most famous passages in the books of Philip Roth (at least among the ones not involving sex), the “false” Roth who haunts the pages and the author of “Operation Shylock: A Confession” proclaims his philosophy of Diasporism. He extols the genius of Irving Berlin “the father of the new Diasporist movement. …” Hearing “Easter Parade” on the radio, the doppelganger says, “But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”
With impeccable logic, NYFOS’s program closes with “White Christmas,” one of the most recorded and best selling of all Berlin’s immensely successful output.
But both Roth and “Roth” are looking through the wrong end of the sociological telescope. If you look at the list of songs in the NYFOS set list, very few of them deal with Christmas as a religious observance, and a few of them don’t mention the holiday at all. Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a typically witty seduction duet and “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith is a seasonal piece that could be suitably paired with “Autumn in New York.” And no one makes much of Vernon Duke’s omission of Columbus Day and Yom Kippur from that number.
It makes a lot more sense if you think of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” as the work of someone who has been marginalized by the dominant (i.e., Christian) culture trying to find a positive way to participate in that culture without betraying a fundamental tenet of his own belief system. You don’t have to believe in the divinity of Jesus to celebrate “chestnuts roasting on a open fire,” kids anticipating a day of gifts or family togetherness, which is what the song is ostensibly about.
And several of the songs in “A Goyishe Christmas” were originally written for specific contexts in which the character played by the singer was clearly a non-Jew. “Silver Bells” (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) was introduced by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the 1953 film “The Lemon Drop Kid.” Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” in “Holiday Inn.” It’s not as if anyone would have cast them as down-and-out yeshiva students in “The Road to B’nei B’rak.”
Of course, the real sticking point here, and the unspoken source of some of the “war on Christmas” nonsense is the transformation of the holiday from an enunciation of the numinous into a sales event. That is the way of the truly dominant culture of America: merchandising. The December holidays — all of them — have become just another “Sale-a-bration.” Thanksgiving is no longer about gratitude or family; it is merely a prelude to Black Friday, an excuse for our most rapacious chain stores to demand their employees forego their own family time. The Fourth of July is chance for Tom Jefferson to hawk auto parts, George Washington household appliances. It is hard for a Jew in America to take much umbrage at Christmas when real the purpose of the day is Santa worship.
A program like “A Goyishe Christmas” is best understood as a celebration of songwriting craftsmanship, with a little comic irony thrown in. As Alec Wilder points out in his masterly “American Popular Song,” the “daring succession of notes in the chromatic phrase” that is the heart of “White Christmas” turns up again slightly altered in “It Only Happens When I Dance with You.” It’s a phrase that has a subtle upward soar that carries the listener (and, I suspect, the singer) to a delicious and remote place that has everything to do with musical art and relates only tangentially to anybody’s faith tradition.
“A Goyishe Christmas to You,” a collection of Yuletide songs by Jewish composers, will be presented by the New York Festival of Song on Monday, Dec. 16 at Henry’s Restaurant (2745 Broadway at 105th St.) at 10 p.m. The program includes a never-to-be-forgotten Yiddish rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” by Cantor Joshua Breitzer. For reservations and information, call (212) 866-0600.