Songs by American Jews

Many of the best-known American songs have been written by Jews--including many Christmas songs.

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The following was adapted with permission from a course Jacobson taught for Hebrew College Online.

American Jews were tremendously active in music in the first half of the twentieth century. According to a study of American musicians published in 1933, at a time when Jews comprised less than 4% of the total United States population, 36% of the players in American "amusement orchestras" were Jews. And in the string sections, the numbers were twice as high! In the world of arts and entertainment, superior talent sometimes overcame racial prejudice.

Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer

Johnny Marks wrote

"Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer"

Consider this list, which highlights some of the songs by the great Jewish American composers and lyricists.

- 1823 John Payne (son of Sarah Isaacs) (lyricist), "Home Sweet Home."

- 1840 Henry Russell, "The Old Arm Chair"

- 1892 Charles K. Harris, "After the Ball is Over"

- 1900 Harry von Tilzer, "A Bird in a Gilded Cage"

- 1908 Albert Von Tilzer, "Take Me out to the Ball Game"

- 1908 Nora Bayes, "Shine on Harvest Moon" (assisted by her husband Jack Norworth)

- 1909 Gus Edwards, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon"

- 1911 Harry von Tilzer, "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad"

- 1911 Irving Berlin, "Alexander's Ragtime Band"

- 1918 Irving Berlin, "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" (from Yip Yip Yaphank)

- 1919 George Gershwin, "Swanee"

- 1922 Gus Kahn (lyricist), "Yes Sir That's My Baby"

- 1924 George Gershwin, "Fascinatin' Rhythm," (from Lady Be Good)

- 1924 George Gershwin, "The Man I Love" (from Lady Be Good)

- 1925 Gus Kahn (lyricist), "Nothing Could be Finer Than to Be in Carolina in the Morning"

- 1927 George Gershwin, Strike Up the Band

- 1927 Jerome Kern, "Old Man River" from Showboat

- 1930 George Gershwin, "Embraceable You" (from Girl Crazy)

- 1930 George Gershwin, "I Got Rhythm" (from Girl Crazy)

- 1935 George Gershwin, "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess

- 1935 George Gershwin, "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess

- 1937 Mark Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock

- 1938 Harold Arlen with lyricist Yip Harburg, "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz

- 1938 Irving Berlin, "Easter Parade"

- 1938 Irving Berlin, "God Bless America"

- 1940 Lorenz Hart, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Pal Joey

- 1942 Irving Berlin "White Xmas"

- 1942 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma

- 1943 Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow"

- 1946 Mel Torme, "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

- 1949 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific

- 1949 Johnny Marks, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"

- 1950 Frank Loesser, "Luck Be a Lady" (from Guys and Dolls)

- 1950 Livingston and Evans, "Silver Bells"

- 1951 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, "Getting to Know You" from The King and I

- 1953 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Hound Dog"

- 1954 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, State Fair

- 1954 Sammy Cahn, "Three Coins in the Fountain"

- 1956 Frederick Loewe, "I Could Have danced All Night" from My Fair Lady

- 1957 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Searchin'"

- 1958 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Yackety Yak"

- 1959 Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, "Teenager in Love"

- 1959 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Charlie Brown"

- 1959 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Love Potion Number Nine"

- 1959 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, The Sound of Music

- 1960 Carole King, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"

- 1960 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Spanish Harlem"

- 1961 Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, "Stand By Me"

- 1962 Carole King, "The Locomotion"

- 1962 Neil Sedaka, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do"

- 1963 Carole King, "Go Away Little Girl"

- 1963 Peter Yarrow, "Puff the Magic Dragon" (Peter, Paul & Mary)

- 1963, Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind"

- 1964 Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, "You've Lost that Lovin Feelin"

- 1964 Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich, "Leader of the Pack" (The Shangri-Las)

- 1965 Bob Dylan, "Mr. Tambourine Man"

- 1965 Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle, "Sounds of Silence"

- 1967 Carole King, "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman"

- 1968 Paul Simon and Garfunkel, "Mrs. Robinson"

Notice how many of the famous American Christmas songs were written by Jews!

- "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin

- "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks

- "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne

- "Silver Bells" by Livingston and Evans

- "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) by Mel Torme

Some Jewish musicians changed their names to have an American career:

- Hyman Arluck became Harold Arlen

- Izzy Baline became Irving Berlin

- Asa Yoelson became Al Jolson

- Avrohom Arshawsky - became Artie Shaw

- David Kaminsky became Danny Kaye

- Jacob Gershwine - became George Gershwin 

In Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, the narrator observes, "God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, and 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 do? Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow."

Sample the Tunes

Click to listen to samples of the following songs from the Zamir Chorale's CD "Jewish Composers in America":

 

Adon Olam

(Music by Charles Davidson, Lyrics by Solomon Ibn Gabirol)

 

And the Angels Sing

(Music by Ziggy Elman, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer (arr: Joshua Jacobson and Art Bailey)

 

Miriam

(Music by Elizabeth Swados, Lyrics based on Exodus 15 and Isaiah 6)

 

Music courtesy Zamir Chorale of Boston.


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Dr. Joshua Jacobson

Dr. Joshua Jacobson is Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Northeastern University and a Visiting Professor of Jewish Music at Hebrew College. He is also the founder and director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, a world-renowned ensemble, specializing in Hebrew music.