Blue and White Christmas
What do Israel Baline, Felix Bernhardt, Samuel Cohen, Walter Kauffman, Jacob Levinson, Jonathan Marks, Michael Pashelinsky, Samuel Ram, Julius Steyn, Alan Stillman, Melvin Torma, and Bernard Weismann have in common?
This minyan plus two wrote the lyrics or music to twelve of the top twenty Christmas songs, according to the most zealous researcher of the subject.
Assimilation was a two-way street. These Jews may have helped in a small way to turn the celebration of the birth of Jesus into a tribute to glistening treetops, sleighbells in the snow, stoplights blinking red and green, chestnuts roasting on the open fire, and hearts glowing when loved ones are near. At the same time, most of them anglicized their names. Baline became Irving Berlin ("White Christmas"), Bernhardt Felix Bernard ("Winter Wonderland"), Cohen Sammy Cahn ("Let It Snow!") Kauffman Walter Kent ("I'll be Home for Christmas"), Levinson Jay Livingston ("Silver Bells"), Pashelinsky Mitchell Parrish ("Sleigh Ride"), Weismann George Wyle ("It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"). Johnny Marks ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree"), Jule Steyn ("Let It Snow!"), and Buc Ram ("I'll be Home for Christmas") tweaked their names slightly, while Mel Tormé ("Christmas Song") perversely gallicized his original monicker.
They weren't alone of course. Anthony Benedetto, Walden Cassotto, Concetto Franconero, Dino Crocetti, and Robert Ridarelli did as well.
Once upon a time, immigrants embraced and enriched the popular culture of the majority. There was no sense of grievance or entitlement in the lyrics of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters. "God Bless America," wrote Irving Berlin in 1938, sentiments not shared by President Obama's pastor of twenty years.
The hunger of first and second generation Jews to be accepted as "real Americans" now seems to many hopelessly quaint and even pathetic. But they felt as they did because they were convinced there was something worth belonging to. Outside of country music, how many popular songs since the 1960s have celebrated America or the simple pleasures of this season: walking in a winter wonderland, yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree?