Jews write songs. People buy Christmas songs. So, naturally Jews have written Christmas songs, a fact that has been well-documented. But those songs were for, um, other people to sing, right?
Sometimes. thing is, Jews have released many Christmas albums; I found about two dozen. Some singers have recorded more than one. And these have tended to include some of the most famously Jewish performers, like Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow.
Again, this is understandable; to many Americans, it might even be offensive if someone with a wide, mainstream audience did not sing the occasional Christmas song. Diversity and acceptance work both ways, after all.
Still, there are Christmas songs, and then there are Christmas songs. Some songs don't even mention the holiday- like "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," or "Let It Snow." Some just celebrate the holiday as a fun time, like "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" or "Here Comes Santa Claus." Meanwhile, other songs are much more explicit about the "Christ" part of "Christmas"… and Jews have not tended to write those.
I found lists at other sites of "Jewish singers and their Christmas albums," but none of those articles delves into the kind of Christmas songs are on the albums themselves. Clearly, someone had to.
The earliest one I could find was Christmas With Eddie Fisher, released in 1952 with eight songs and in 1969 with two more. The initial selection includes three new melodies; the rest are standards. Religious song-to-secular song ratio for the original release- 2:6.
His psychological issues aside, no one disputes Phil Spector's skill in the studio. One of his few releases under his own name, 1963's A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector, features 13 entirely secular tracks sung by The Crystals, the Ronnettes, and Darlene Love.
One of the most visibly Jewish of Jewish singers, Barbra Streisand, was also one of the first out with the clearly titled A Christmas Album. While her Jewish contemporaries, Simon & Garfunkel, performed a socially provocative "Silent Night" in 1968, Streisand served up an entirely sincere version on this album, just the year before. Also "The Lord's Prayer" and even "Ave Maria." Her ratio? Almost a tie, with a razor's edge to secular material- 5:6.
In 2001, 34 years after her first Christmas release, in 2001, Streisand released Christmas Memories (2001). It was finished before the 9/11 attacks, but many wondered if it had been, given its somber, nostalgic tone. Also, it includes the song "One God," about how many religions are similar. Ratio- 2:10. (The other religious song? "Ave Maria" again.)
Amazingly, I can't find any Christmas albums by Jewish performers for all of the 1970s or 1980s.
Then Barry Manilow, um, broke the ice in 1990 with Because it's Christmas. At 4:11, it's solidly secular. Twelve years later, Manilow was back with A Christmas Gift of Love, with 11 entirely secular tracks. And he went back to the well again in 2007 for In The Swing of Christmas for another 12, making him one of the few Jews to have recorded three Christmas albums or more.
Mel Torme had written the Christmas song already. No, really, the song about "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" is officially titled "The Christmas Song," and he wrote it. Anyway, he recorded Christmas Songs in 1992, with the religious song "What Child is This?" (and also "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"… presented as an instrumental. Is that a half?) Anyway, with 18 secular songs sung by Torme, the album is clearly secular in nature.
Like Manilow, Neil Diamond went in big time, with three Christmas albums. On 1992's The Christmas Album, almost half the songs are religious, with a one-point edge to secular- 7:8. Two years later, he was back with Volume 2, on which religious songs win out, 9:7. Then he took a break, coming back in 2009 with A Cherry Cherry Chrismas ("Cherry Cherry" being the name of one of his earliest hits and also rhyming with "merry merry") on which the score was 2:12, so it was overwhelmingly secular. But some Jewish guilt must have crept in after three Christmas albums, because the last track this time was Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song." He has prepped for this in 2006, performing "Hava Negila" at the end of Keeping Up with the Steins; Diamond hadn't done The Jazz Singer since 1980 and probably needed to make sure he didn't, as they say in politics, lose his base.
Harry Connick Jr. had a Jewish mother, but identifies with his father's Catholicism. His 1993 release When My Heart Finds Christmas has a 6:9 religious-to-secular ratio. But the originals he wrote and included here have titles like "The Blessed Dawn of Christmas Day" and the self-explanitory "I Pray on Christmas."
Unlike Streisand and Diamond, Carly Simon never put out any overtly Jewish material- her closest is Really Rosie- and, like Connick, many don't even know of her Jewish heritage. So there was no real reaction when she released Christmas is Almost Here, which has a secular-slanted 4:7 ratio anyway.
The "M" in "Divine Miss M' does not stand for "Madrigal," but Bette Midler came out with Cool Yule in 2006. Some of the songs aren't even Christmas ones, just winter ones, like "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." So it's no surprise that the score is 2:10- overwhelmingly secular, in keeping with both the album's title and Midler's cheeky persona.
It had been decades since Bob Dylan dabbled in Christianity, so it was a bit of a jaw-dropper when he dropped Christmas in the Heart in 2009. Also, this is one guy about which no one has said, "I could listen to him sing the phone book," so why do we need his versions of songs sung by Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand? The score is 6:9 so it's secular, but not overwhelmingly so. (Bob, the rabbi would like a word before you do another Chabad telethon...)
When one of her generation's most beloved songwriters comes out with her first album in 10 years, it is a bit of a letdown when it's a Christmas album. Still, Carole King did present some originals on 2011's A Christmas Carole (get it?). There is only one religious track to the 10 that are secular, plus Chanukah Prayer, which is simply the Chanukah candle-lighting blessing repeated over and over by children to a dissonant jazz backing.
Those who know sax player John Zorn's music know that it is wildly eclectic. But he called his band Masada and his label Tzadik, so the one kind of music he'd never do is Christian, right? Well, not up until 2011, when Zorn released A Dreamer's Christmas. Like almost all of his enormous output (107 albums and counting), it's experimental, it's provocative, and it's instrumental. All nine tracks are of secular songs, even if you are only singing the words in your head.
But the reigning king of Jews with Christmas albums is… Kenneth Gorelick! Whom you know as just "Kenny G." He has four Christmas albums. The first, Miracles: The Holiday Album, came out in 1994, and only one of its 11 (instrumental) tracks was religious. The Holiday Album series continued with Faith (1999, 6:7) and Wishes (2002, 7:6). Then in 2005, G released a "best of" from these three, added some bonus tracks including "The Chanukah Song," and dubbed the whole schmear The Greatest Holiday Classics. It has a very secular feel, with a 4:13 ratio.
Jews have written everything from "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin to "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" by Paul Simon to, well, "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" by The Ramones. Since Jews wrote so many Christmas favorites, it is hard to argue that Jewish singers are doing something "wrong" by performing them. And, these singers are performing, as we have seen, largely secular works celebrating a festive season-- not professing a faith counter to their own-- for a paycheck.
It's like the Jewish joke about the teacher who asks the student who the most important person in history is; whoever is right gets $5.00. Students guess Lincoln, Gandhi, and Galileo. Finally, Sammy raises his hand and says "Jesus." The teacher tells him he's right and calls him up to take the money. As she hands it to him, she says, "I'm surprised, since you are Jewish." Sammy shrugs. "I know the answer is Moses," he says, taking the five. "But business is business."