A Fine Romance: Jew­ish Song­writ­ers, Amer­i­can Songs

David Lehman
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
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.

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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.

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