What accounts for the fact that the majority of America’s leading songwriters, the movers and shapers of our popular musical culture, were Jewish, including such luminaries as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim? Through factbased analysis and anecdote-rich tribute, David Lehman spiritedly explores this striking phenomenon.
The prominence of the cantor in Jewish worship (Berlin and Arlen were cantors’ sons) and of music in Yiddish theatre were undoubtedly influential, while the synagogue-derived “sound of lamentation” threads through many of the songs composed; some of them were taken directly from Jewish liturgical melodies, like “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (Borchu et adoshem hamvoroch) in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In fact, the most successful non-Jewish American composer, Cole Porter, told Richard Rodgers that “he had finally figured out the secret of writing hits… ‘I’ll write Jewish tunes’.” And so he did, in minor-key masterpieces such as “Night and Day” and “Begin the Beguine.” Keying in to the emotional and spiritual yearnings of their Christian compatriots, these Jewish composers became one with them through song — most notably in Irving Berlin’s secularizing of Christmas and Easter and enshrining God, not Christ, as the deity one implores to bless America.
This title is a part of Nextbook Press and Schocken Books’ Jewish Encounters series.
Norman J. Fedder, Ph.D., is distinguished professor emeritus of theatre at Kansas State University. He is currently on the faculty of the Interdisciplinary Arts Program at Nova Southeastern University.