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How Jewish immigrants created ‘the soundtrack of America’s Christmas’

Robert Kapilow comes to Jordan Hall with the unexpected stories behind our favorite holiday tunes.
Robert Kapilow comes to Jordan Hall with the unexpected stories behind our favorite holiday tunes.Celebrity Series

Quick! Think of your favorite popular Christmas song that’s about snow, Santa, silver bells, anything but Jesus. “White Christmas?” “Run Rudolph Run?” “Santa Baby?” You can probably thank a Jewish immigrant for it.

“All of these Jewish songwriters were trying to assimilate, trying to become part of mainstream American culture,” explained Rob Kapilow, a composer and host of the “What Makes It Great?” concert series. “They almost all changed their names. They were writing Christmas songs. They literally helped invent American secular Christmas.”

Over the phone, Kapilow promised that after this Sunday’s “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” a “What Makes It Great?” program hosted by Celebrity Series of Boston, you’ll never listen to your holiday favorites the same way again. The 90-minute concert will see Kapilow joined on the Jordan Hall stage by vocalists Michael Winther and Gabrielle Stravelli, and the Southborough-based Labyrinth Choir conducted by Anita Kupriss. It’ll include performances, historical anecdotes, and Kapilow’s explanations of why we find those Christmas chestnuts so delicious year after year.

Kapilow said it all started with “White Christmas” — written in 1942 by Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin, who arrived in the United States as a young boy after his family fled pogroms in Russia. Kapilow calls “White Christmas” the “foundational cornerstone” of popular Christmas songs. Before that, none of the publishers were especially interested in songs that would only be performed a few times a year, he said. But the song’s success was “unparalleled.” After that, songwriters all over the country jumped on the bandwagon — or the sleigh, as it may be.

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"The story of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is so unbelievable that it will be worth coming to the show just to hear what the actual real story is,” Kapilow teased. The conversation was lightly edited and condensed.

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Q. You have a video where you dissect a little bit of “White Christmas,” and you say there’s not a specific Jewish element in there, but you point out this longing that wasn’t present in much popular music of the day beyond the blues. Where does that come from?

A. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly Jewish or Yiddish kind of music, but you definitely hear that longing. “White Christmas” is a beautiful ballad, but there’s a deep melancholy underneath it as well. I do think that sense of a lost homeland, or trying to find yourself in a new land is part of what this is all about.

Q. Was show business and songwriting a path that was open to immigrants in those days?

A. Yes, it was wide open. Jews were the theater owners, and the music publishers on Tin Pan Alley. It was not only open to Jews, but it was one of the rare fields where it was actually dominated. Also Hollywood. In entertainment, there were not the same bars as there were in medicine, law, or places like that. So yes, it was open, and that’s why they did congregate there.

Q. To circle back to to that comment you made earlier, the phrase you used was “inventing Christmas.” Why do you say Christmas had to be invented?

A. What actually happened through these songs was the invention of a completely secular Christmas. I mean, the Christmas of Christmas trees and Santa Claus is what we just think of as Christmas. But we forget that Christmas actually was supposed to be the celebration of the birth of Christ, a fundamentally religious holiday. Before, the music of Christmas was the music of carols. So it’s not that they invented Christmas, they invented this secular Christmas. That’s the one that’s now merchandised and happens worldwide. Even Jews participate in this. The only reason Hanukkah ever became a significant holiday was to create a Jewish alternative to Christmas. It was a totally minor holiday before Christmas took over everything.

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FDR, during the war, actually made Christmas Day the only day that the war factories and plants would close, essentially making Christmas Day the national holiday. It’s really in the ’40s and ’50s that it turned from being a fundamentally religious holiday to one everybody’s supposed to participate in. And that’s part of the spirit in which the songs got written as well. We were all supposed to be in the war together. We were supposed to join together and celebrate our oneness, not our separation.

Q. These secular Christmas songs have a lot of staying power. When modern pop artists release a Christmas song, they’re as likely to sing “Let it Snow!” as have a new one written. What do you think makes these songs so enduring?

A. They’re standards, in the same way that pop tunes of Gershwin, Kern, and Porter are standards that get redone by jazz singers. Now these have become the canonical classics that get recorded by Kelly Clarkson and all these different pop singers who do their own covers.

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Part of it is also a desire to create a musical tradition. You know, we want traditions, we want to have continuity, and so we invent them wherever we can. Our desire is to make traditions, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

I mean, let me put it on the biggest meta level: We all want to become part of a “we,” rather than being an isolated “me.” For example, even though we were Jewish, there was this one Bing Crosby recording of Christmas songs that my mother absolutely adored. And every year, we knew it was Christmas season when she put it on, and we could sing “Mele Kalikimaka” by heart. So I think the desire to create tradition — I think each generation wants to become part of that.

Ironically, it’s a tradition that got invented by outsiders: immigrant Jews, creating the soundtrack of America’s Christmas — which is a remarkable story. And that’s really what the show is about.

DREAMING OF A JEWISH CHRISTMAS

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Jordan Hall, Dec. 8, 3 p.m. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.