Isaiah 7.10-14

Luke 2.1-20

Have Yourself a Meshugganeh Little Christmas

Songs of the Season - IV

Christmas Eve 2019

In 1893, five year old Israel Isidore Beilin left the shtetl in what is now Belarus and emigrated with his family to New York City.  His father was a cantor in a synagogue, and his mother a midwife.  Young Isidore dropped out of school when he was eight years old and started working to help support his family.  Izzy, as he came to be called, sold newspapers in the Bowery.  When he was thirteen, he realized that the only real talent he possessed was that, like his father, he could sing, so he and a couple of his buddies would go from saloon to saloon and serenade the customers in hopes of having a few coins tossed their way.  Music soon became his life.

During Advent we have been looking at the biblical songs, or hymns of praise, that lead into the Christmas story.  We heard the song that Hannah sang when she learned that, at her ripe old age, she would conceive and bear a son, Samuel, who would grow to anoint not one, but two kings of Israel, one of whom was David, from whose house and lineage Jesus would be born.  We heard two of the servant songs of Isaiah, which anticipate the birth of the messiah.  We heard the songs of Zechariah and of Mary, mother of Jesus, at the time of the nativity.  Tonight we heard the wonderful Gloria in excelsis deo, the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth:  Glory to God in the highest, peace and good will to everyone on earth.  But one thing we haven’t said about any of these songs yet is that every one of them is a Jewish song.  Even the songs expressly about Jesus himself are Jewish because of course, Jesus was Jewish.  It’s one of those no-brainer things that really don’t need to be said, but since we so seldom stop to think about it, it actually does need to be said, especially at a time when anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise.  All the biblical songs about the birth of Jesus are Jewish songs of praise.   Or to put it another way, all the biblical songs about Christmas are Jewish songs of praise, written and sung by Jews.

It’s been more than two thousand years since these biblical songs were written, but in some ways things have not changed very much at all.  Izzy Beilin leveraged his youthful experience of singing in Bowery saloons into a career in music.  He was soon hired to plug songs at a music hall in New York’s Union Square in 1906, and when he turned 18 got a job as a singing waiter in Chinatown.  In his spare time Izzy taught himself piano, and published his first song not long after that, earning 37 cents in royalties.  A spelling error on the sheet music mistakenly listed the composer, not as I. Beilin, but as I. Berlin.  Isidore became Irving, and Irving Berlin went on to write one of the most memorable Christmas tunes of his or any era, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” one of those few songs I bet everyone here could sing from memory, without having to look at the words, from first line to last.

So it wasn’t just in biblical times that Jews wrote memorable songs for the season of Jesus’ birth.  And it wasn’t just Irving Berlin who wrote the Christmas songs we sing today.  Johnny Marks is a name that might ring a bell with you, if you’ve watched the animated “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” enough – his name appears in both the opening and closing credits, because he wrote the song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” made popular by Gene Autry, in 1949.  Marks was also Jewish, born in Mount Vernon, New York and educated at both Colgate and Columbia.  Marks was a prolific writer of Christmas music; besides “Rudolph,” he also wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  And no, we’re not going to sing that one tonight.

Last Sunday a dozen of us from the United Church made a field trip of sorts to New Britain for the Connecticut Theater Company’s production of “Meet Me in St Louis,” starring our very own Karli Gilbertson.  It was a wonderful show, and on the drive up a couple of us wondered why “Meet Me in St. Louis” was being performed in the heart of the Christmas season.  We got our answer in the second act as that part of the play is set during the Christmas holidays, and we learned that one of the songs written for the musical is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written by Ralph Blane, born Ralph Uriah Hunsecker to a Jewish family in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Ella Fitzgerald sang what is my favorite version of the song, “The Secret of Christmas.” We’ll hear the words to that song in a few minutes, as I think they can stand alone without necessarily hearing the music, but it is a wonderful Christmas song, written by Jewish lyricist Sammy Cahn.  Cahn also wrote the more familiar holiday tune, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” with collaborator Jule Styne.

You can see where I’m going with this.  Here is only a partial list of popular Christmas music written by Jewish songwriters:  “The Christmas Song,” Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, was written by Mel Tormé.  “Winter Wonderland” was written by Felix Bernard.  “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written by Fred Coots.  “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Ed Pola.   “Santa Baby” was written by Joan Javits, niece of the late New York Senator Jacob Javits.  “Silver Bells” was written by Jay Livingston, born Jacob Harold Levison.  And one of my favorites, “Sleigh Ride” was written by Connecticut’s own Leroy Anderson; Anderson was not Jewish, but Mitchell Parish, who wrote the lyrics, was.  “Come on, it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.”  And even though the songs I’ve mentioned are almost entirely secular, the hymn we sang just a few moments ago, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” was composed by Felix Mendelsohn, also a Jew.

So it wasn’t just in the Bible where so many of the songs of the season were written and sung by the children of Abraham.  It is a long-standing tradition, and I think there is an important message in this for the contemporary church on Christmas Eve.  Two in fact.  The first is obvious and I wish it didn’t have to be voiced, but it does:  in a day and age when anti-Semitism seems to be becoming both bolder and more violent, it bears remembering the ways that Jewish life and creativity imbue our culture to such an extent that we don’t even notice.  It is not just that we stand in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers, but that they also stand with us – we stand, we live, we work we laugh, and we sing together.

The other is that Christmas does not belong exclusively to Christians, or to the church.  In fact, there is no mention of observing or celebrating Jesus’ birth anywhere in the Bible.    While there are stories about celebrating the Hebrew feasts of Purim and Passover, and of celebrating the resurrection and Easter, there is no mention of celebrating what you and I celebrate tonight and tomorrow.  As those familiar with their local history already know, celebrating Christmas was actually outlawed for a while by our early New England puritan forbears.  So the history of the holiday is a little complicated, a little crazy, a little mixed up – a little meshugganeh - but it remains true that the season of hope, peace, joy and love belongs to no singular group of people or religion, but rather to all creation.  As the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, peace and good will to everyone on earth.”

On this third full day of Hanukkah, may I wish you Merry Christmas friends. 

Amen.

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