Saturday, December 19, 2009

Garrison Keillor Goes After Christmas Songs Written by Jews and Unitarians

Garrison Keillor has written a screed called "Non Believers, Please Leave Christmas Alone." The man who has been likened to a contemporary Mark Twain has been trying for some time to get the "crotchety old geezer" thing down. In this piece he first blasts the Unitarians for changing the lyrics of Silent Night to eliminate the idea that Jesus was God. Then he goes after

…all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write "Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah"? No, we didn't.

One wonders whether "the rest of that dreck" includes Irving Berlin's (né Izzy Bailin) "White Christmas". That's the most popular un-Christian Christmas song recorded, and, as far as I know, one of the most popular songs ever recorded.

Heck, it has even been recorded by…Garrison Keillor. Hope they are not "trashing up the malls" with his version.

But there is a serious point here, and as a Jew who was expected to sing Christian hymns at his Episcopalian prep school (I mouthed the words "Jesus Christ" without pronouncing the name), I think I can understand where Keillor is coming from.

Mr. Keillor, Christmas went American a long time ago. It was at a time when Christmas was ubiquitous -- including crèches on government property --, as American as apple-pie. Those were not easy days for what you call "non-believers" (I was once asked by a Christian fundamentalist whether I was a "believer," and I showed her my yarmulke and said, "Sure"). We felt really left out of the party. It was a helluva lot worse for us during Easter. But there were songwriters who did what songwriters do, and they wrote songs that would appeal to the mainstream, and, for better or worse, they are now as American as apple-pie. They allowed Americans, believers and non-believers, to participate in the festivities. That was one of the gifts of the secularization of Christmas. And I am not a fan of secularization.

Mr. Keillor, what do you think about "Jingle Bell Rock" which floods the malls every year, written by Bobby Helms, hardly a Jew. Are believing Christians allowed to write schlocky and commercial Christmas songs? Probably not. So why go after the religious identity of the songwriter? Just write against the songs, and keep the anti-Semitic slurs for your friends from Lake Wobegon who share your views

Garrison Keillor can decry the secularization of Christmas – keep Christmas for the Christians -- and I will be partly sympathetic to him. I am an orthodox Jew now, and I don't like what has happened to Jewish holidays like Hannukah either.

But he will have to first take back the American Christmas from the "non-believers." And this orthodox Jew will sure as hell fight him over it.


Michael W. said...

While I don't take any comfort from singing Christmas songs and would never recognize it as a holiday I would observe, I agree with you about Garrison's comment. Anyone should be able to write songs for any audience. Though I hardly see it as something to "fight" over. It's not a battle. Garrison and "Lutherans" can't fight the consumers (music listeners), and nothing can stop them from buying Christmas albums from Jewish songwriters.

Do you actually sing Christmas songs for fun? Would you consider yourself an observer of the Christmas holiday? Like Hanukkah, Christmas is more than about Lights. There is a story behind it, and Christmas is about Jesus, someone who has no religious significance to Jews. Sure we can right songs about Christmas, but we aren't actually celebrating Jesus' birth nor Christmas.

Ken Hoop said...

I read that Luther wanted to burn synagogues, not with Jews in them. Did I miss something or is yours another typical ethnic claim in line with the "six million" figure?

Unknown said...

The original Christmas songs were written by Jews "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace goodwill toward men" should jingle a bell.
Speaking of which white Christmas is schlock but Mel Torme's the Christmas song nowhere indicates that the singer celebrates Christmas

Jerry Haber said...

Michael, I don't sing Christmas songs for fun. But I do like Christmas in America -- I think it is a beautiful holiday -- and I love some of the old songs. I certainly prefer Crosby's version of White Christmas to Mandy Patinkin's Yiddish version, which has its charm.

Ken, I was misremembering, and I have changed the post accordingly. For any Lutheran offended what I wrote about Luther, it is a good idea to read the original.

Dana said...

Jerry, you are being thoroughly unfair to the lutherans of lake woebegone - aka - minnesota descendents of norwegian immigrants. You cannot hold them responsible for what luther did or did not want to do the jews - this many centuries earlier. any more than christians can hold jews responsible for jesus' death or for certain unkind utterances against goys contained in the talmud. Luckily for us all, collective guilt-inducing mud-slinging has gone out of fashion, one would hope. and frankly, I'm surprised you'd stoop to this kind of comment - as annoyed as you may be at garrison's comment.

Like it or not, there really is a simmering reservoir of anti-jewish feelings in the heartland, much as there's resentment of creeping hispanization of american culture. That is to be expected when every second pundit on TV or in one of the main newspapers is jewish, or perceived to be so. In the hinterland, people assume most jews are rich too - which we know not to be the case. It's just that enough of them are to stand out - not always on the side of angels either - and during these times when wall street is perceived as the enemy of the population - and of democracy (rightly so) it's not surprising that there'd be some generalizations and some searching for scapegoats. Given the growing realization that israel is a bit of a rogue state that, on the whole, has little reciprocal love for america (it's mostly into self-love), it's probably a good idea to be careful with certain statements, especially coming from one as enlightened as you seem to be.

many people I know (quite a few of whom are jewish) were for example totally taken aback by the televized pictures of one, rahm emanuel, lighting a giant hanukkiah outside the white house. The same rahm who just told reid to go along with anything lieberman wanted. The same rahm who just said that liberals don't matter and never will. Not good for the jews, I dare say, not good at all.

Jerry Haber said...


I cut the reference to the Lutherans and to Luther. But I would distinguish between collective responsibility and collective sensitivity. Yes, I think Jews should be sensitive to gentiles because of the anti-goyyish sentiments in the tradition and Lutherans should display a sensitivity to Jews because of the well-known text by their founder, and Catholics have their cross to bear, etc. To be sure, there are better reasons to be sensitive than that one.

You provide different explanations for anti-Jewish feelings in the heartland; that wasn't the subject of my post. Maybe I wasn't being fair to associate the Lake Wobegonians with Keillor, their creator, and had Keillor put his words in their mouth, then my line would have been justified. So I deleted it.

What annoyed me was his distinction between believers and non-believers, as if believers owned Christmas in America. They don't. And why go after Jewish songwriters when his complaint was with the secularization of Christmas? Let that be the focus.

Actually, I am just as bothered by the crack against the Unitarians, the Bete Noire (that sounds like Guy Noir's sister) of orthodox Christians. It reminds me of orthodox Jewish intolerance of reform.

Keillor fouled up here. A humorist has to know how to draw the lines. He should apologize to both groups. And say a word about the royalties he receives for singing White Christmas

Tobias said...

I think it would be best to go and accept that Christmas the Christian holiday, and X-Mas the end-of-year folkloristic fair, are two separate, if correlating, events. Drop the pretense that "X-Mas" has anything to do with Christianity. That would save Christians and non-Christians alike the hassle of worrying about the Christian content of X-Mas. A Christian can celebrate Christmas in Church, singing proper Christmas song written by proper Christians, then go home and have X-Mas with his family, listening to X-Mas songs written by Jewish songwriters. What's the big deal?

That said, if anybody could push some legislation to ban Wham's unbelievably obnoxious "Last Christmas" from the airwaves once and forever, I wouldn't object.

Unknown said...

If Christians really wanted to de-secularize Christmas, they should be lobbying to have it delisted as a Federal holiday. As long as the government is closed to everybody--Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, Wiccan, scientologist, everybody--on December 25, Christians have no cause for complaint about what other people do on or for the day. They have chosen to force it on everybody, so Keillor and his ilk should stop whining.

Anonymous said...

I think you are being too harsh on Garrison Keillor. He works in public radio and entertainment, professions that are full of Jews. He regularly hosts Jewishly Jewish people on Prairies Home Companion - not to mention the musicians on his staff.
In that context, the Rosh Hashanah comment was pointing to the secularization of Christmas. If it were Muslims writing the secularized Christian songs, he would have used them to make his point.
This is not an anti-semitic screed. It's just a bit of nostalgic sentimentality. If I were Christian, I'd likely feel the same way. Especially if I were a good-looking and above average Minnesotan.

Jerry Haber said...

I see no inconsistency between having Jewish friends and Jewish business associates, marrying a Jew, and even be willing to lay down one's life for a Jew, on the one hand, and making anti-Semitic slurs, on the other. I sure am guilty of all the above.

It is at best poor taste to go after Jewish songwriters for the sins of Xmas secularization when a) those "sins" are committed by people of all faiths, including committed Christians and b) American secularisation permits inclusiveness. Frankly, I would be happy if Keillor would write a good song about a Jewish holiday --a believing Christian would probably be closer to my theology than a secular Jew like Adam Sandler, who wrote that dumb Hannukah song.

Meanwhile, nobody has taken up my point that Keillor makes money off his recording of White Christmas -- or are we supposed to understand that only some of the songs written by the Jewish guys are shlocky whereas "Jingle Bells Rock" (written by a Christian) and "White Christmas" (written by a Jew) are "believer"-approved?

And as for theory that "the liberal Keilor is pissed at the Jewish liberal-hawk-neocon-Israel-lobby-cabal", well, so am I, but what does that have to do with chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

It's Keillor who needs to lighten up, not me. But in the sprit of the season, I forgive the weak attempt at humor.

Merry Xmas to y'all!

5ds said...

white christmas aint no christmas song. it's a pleasant movie diddy and is popular because it's in a movie and jews keep harping it through jewish media. you mention it.

to me it is dreck.

Ed M. said...

You have picked up some interesting friends, Jerry.

I'm really loathe to say this, and I know every racist and bigot on the planet uses "humor" to hide behind but...

He didn't go after non-believers because it wouldn't be funny.

The gag has two edges and both of them are allusive. You laugh because you are being told something you know.

The first is a poke (and I read it as about as good natured as possible) at the outsized influence of Jews in show business. This may be a species of anti-semitism but if it is I've heard this riff a few thousand times from Jewish comedians. The second draws a laugh because the audience is NPR listening, semitiphilic, liberals who are responding to their own cosmopolitanism that they know what a shofar is. For that matter the first one draws a laugh because more because it's showtune knowledge than anything having to do with Jews.

If he believed any of it (or anyone else who gave a damn about such things, which I guess includes you) it would cease to be funny.

PD Dude said...

What's fascinating about the Garrison Keillor article, and the general right wing fight against the secularization of Christmas, is that this is the direct result of right wingers and other who wish to enforce the idea of America as "Christian Nation."

Liberals have often argued that excessive government entanglement with religion is bad for society, and they are probably right. However, the founding fathers were also concerned with government entanglement with religion harming religion. This is precisely what has happened with X-mas.

Thanks in large part to government's endorsement of X-mas as a national holiday, followed inexorably by Madison Ave's marketing of it, and every retailer's reliance on it for survival, X-mas is now a secular nationalist holiday. Once you force it on Jews, Muslims, Hindus and anyone else not excessively Christian (which is, how I guess, Catholics would characterize Unitarians), people respond by adapting the holiday to their own traditions, businesses quickly follow suit (follow the money - it's not in the excessive religiosity in it), and the popular culture follows.

The result is that X-mas is no longer a religious holiday, but a cultural event, which has now spread around the world in a way that only America can spread things, to even non-observant nations. Japan, for instance, a particularly non-Christian country, is mad about X-mas. This is not for religious reasons, obviously.

So, herein lies the danger for all "traditionalists," "nationalists," "religious rightists," or any other group, whether here in the US, or in Iran, or Israel, or anywhere else: push your religion on the masses, and watch your religion get debased or society go down the tubes. It's going to be commercialized like X-mas in the US, or become a tool for repression like in Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

This has always been the best argument against excessive government entanglement with religion.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Warren said...

Basically agree with Ed M. Have you read a lot of Keillor's articles, Jerry? He does the old crotchety thing a lot, and he's comedically pretty effective with it, in general. Your reading anti-semitism into Keillor's statement is a bit over the top. He's just being provocative in his crotchety-old-man Garrison Keillor way. And your implication of some kind of widespread midwestern anti-Semitism with your 'his Lake Wobegon friends' comment is rather offensive. I appreciate your blog and worldview quite a bit, but I think you mis-judged this one. (meant as friendly criticism...)

There's a lot of bigotry out and about in the land, and trust me, Keillor ain't the problem. In fact, he's one of our great humorist writers.

tshaw75 said...

In point of fact, Bobby Helms sang "Jingle Bell Rock", but DID NOT write it. It was written by Joseph Beal. Guess what religion he is???