Michael M. Rosen
December 23, 2010 4:00 A.M.
Why This Orthodox Jew Loves Christmas Music
A Jewish American hails the season.
For me, an Orthodox Jew in 21st-century America, December truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Yes, there’s Hanukkah and the family and community celebration it entails. And, sure, there’s winter vacation, the week or so between Christmas and New Year’s when the kids are home from school and my wife and I take time off from work.
But I really love December because it’s around then that my cable provider revives its “Sounds of the Seasons” music channel, which airs round-the-clock Christmas music through early January. Yes, I admit it: My name is Michael Rosen, and I love Christmas music.
Let me be clear: I am deeply proud of my faith, which I practice rigorously. While I genuinely respect the tenets of other creeds, I abhor religious syncretism of all sorts, and I have no desire to observe Christian holidays; the 20-plus yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar are plenty, thank you very much. And I profoundly loathe aggressive proselytizers of all stripes, especially those, like Jews for Jesus, that train their fire on me and my people.
Yet Christmas music exerts a strong emotional and intellectual influence over me every December, for three distinct reasons, in increasing order of importance: its musical beauty; its deep-seated American-ness; and, most importantly, its powerful message of religious tolerance.
The second, more important reason I delight in Christmas music derives from its distinctly American character. Here, it’s important to distinguish the strictly religious Christmas songs, such as “The First Noël,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Come All Ye Faithful,” from the generic “winter season” tunes, such as “Sleigh Ride,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” These latter songs are as American as apple pie, expressing a seasonal commonality felt by all Americans, regardless of creed. Wintry themes such as snow, love, gifts, fires, and family offer something for everyone and remind us that Americans of varied faiths, ethnicities, and generations share much more than we think.
There’s no reason American Jews — even observant ones — can’t relate to these tunes. Indeed, as Marc Tracy and David Lehman have documented, many of the most famous of these wintry songs were written by Jewish composers, including Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), Joan Ellen Javits and Phillip Springer (“Santa Baby”), Mel Tormé (“The Christmas Song”), and Sammy Cahn (“Let It Snow”).
And as Lehman ably explains in A Fine Romance (Nextbook, 222 pp.), his perceptive history of the influence of Jewish songwriters on the American musical catalog, “the Jewish element in American popular song is a property not only of the notes and chords but of the words as well, or, more exactly, the union between words and music.” Jewish songwriters absorbed and displayed a discerning understanding of American culture.
But the third and most significant reason I relish the Christmas canon pertains to the strongly religious nature of the spiritual songs. While I obviously don’t share the theology they express, the religious melodies provide a stark, visceral reminder of the Christian origins of the United States, and especially of the astoundingly warm welcome the early Americans extended to Jews because of, not in spite of, their Christian faith.
The pilgrims, of course, arrived on our continent while fleeing religious persecution and thus were highly sensitive to faith-based oppression. They also evinced a fierce devotion to the customs and history of the Hebrew people; one instance of this was the establishment, at Harvard and Yale, of Hebrew as a mandatory language. This love and tolerance deeply informed the First Amendment, guaranteeing Jews — among others — the right to freely exercise their religion in the absence of an established state faith.
In his famous 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., George Washington expressed this fervent hope: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington’s encomium reflects God’s solemn promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 that “those who bless you, I shall bless, and those who curse you, I shall curse.” In other words, Washington’s devotion to his faith sparked his ardent desire to protect “the Stock of Abraham” in the new United States.
This sentiment reaches its full expression in my personal favorite of the religious songs: “O Holy Night.” (I especially enjoy the version performed by Josh Groban, whose father was born Jewish but converted to Episcopalianism.) The music, naturally, is exquisite, but the lyrics nicely illustrate the philosemitic tendencies of the Christmas canon. Composed and written by two 19th-century Frenchmen, the song, while distinctly Christian, is a paean to religious tolerance:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
The song forthrightly acknowledges the religious obligation borne by all Christians to love the stranger, unchain the enslaved, and liberate the oppressed. It’s difficult to overstate the intellectual and emotional impact of such an approach on American Jews, whom the U.S. has welcomed with open, Christian arms. Thus, whenever I hear Christmas songs sung in English, I cannot help but swell with thankfulness that I’m allowed to freely practice my faith in such an extraordinary country, where, notwithstanding the caterwauling of extreme activists, (almost) all oppression has ceased.
Would that this tolerance were the norm around the world. Nowadays, where Christianity flourishes, Judaism thrives. But where secularism reigns, and where Islamism prevails, Jews find themselves under assault. Europe, home to the world’s largest Jewish population for centuries, has rapidly become the least hospitable place for Jewish communities to take root, as secular values and assertive Muslim populations have advanced. Tragically, oppression is on the march on the very continent that midwifed “O Holy Night.” Even here in the U.S., residents of San Francisco, the most secular of American big cities, now seek to ban circumcision.
So I take nothing for granted when it comes to religious tolerance, and I’m grateful for the musical reinforcement I receive every December. Do I get strange looks from passersby on the streets of (mostly WASPy) La Jolla when, wearing my yarmulke, I’m whistling “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord”? Absolutely. But such are the wages of being Jewish in America in the modern era. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
— Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.