Hebrews for the Holidays

Some of the Most Popular Christmas Songs Were Penned by Jewish Songwriters

By Amir Efrati

Published December 22, 2009.
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Neil Diamond, the well-known crooner, and Allan Rich, an accomplished lyricist, are hoping their newly recorded songs, “Cherry Cherry Christmas” and “Make It Christmas,” become hits even as the men have been busy with their own December tradition of lighting Hanukkah candles.

A number of Jewish songwriters are trying to do what many of their counterparts did generations ago: write a famous Christmas song.

Some see commercial opportunity in songs that are played year after year. Others are seizing the chance to make their mark on a holiday they always loved but couldn’t fully celebrate while growing up in traditional Jewish homes.

Annie Roboff (above) cowrote “Santa’s on the Rooftop.” Listen below.
Annie Roboff (above) cowrote “Santa’s on the Rooftop.” Listen below.
“A Different Kind of Christmas” was cowritten by Allan Rich (above). Listen below.
“A Different Kind of Christmas” was cowritten by Allan Rich (above). Listen below.
Rhythm of Joy” and “He Delivers” were both cowritten by Sandy Sherman (above). Listen below.
Rhythm of Joy” and “He Delivers” were both cowritten by Sandy Sherman (above). Listen below.

But these songwriters have discovered a harsh reality: listeners largely prefer the oldies.

While many people know that Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas” in 1942, was Jewish, few realize that many of Berlin’s brethren penned holiday anthems from the 1930s to the 1960s that still dominate the American airwaves. All told, Jews wrote or co-wrote 12 of the top 25 songs that had the most radio airplay during the past decade, including “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “Silver Bells” and “Let It Snow!”

“Early in my career, I felt that if I could only write a good Christmas song it would remembered forever,” says Rich, who attends a reform Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles.

But fame and fortune from writing a Christmas blockbuster that will be recorded by future artists is much harder than it used to be. The music industry has been struggling for years and is much more diffuse than the days when Bing Crosby spun gold for Mr. Berlin by first performing “White Christmas” in the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn.”

Though few Jewish songwriters have had recent success with their holiday endeavor, many have succeeded in placing new tunes in numerous media, from holiday episodes of popular television series and children’s sing-along videos to songbooks for high-school choirs and adult Christian-music records.

Like “Winter Wonderland” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” Jewish-composed Christmas songs have a distinctly secular quality. They make few references to Christianity, especially Jesus Christ, the holiday’s namesake whose pop-music appeal isn’t nearly as broad, songwriters say. Many of the songs ask that the Christmas “spirit” of love be celebrated year-round, decry shopping-obsessed culture in America or focus on the holiday’s hero – Saint Nick.

“As a Jew, writing a song that talked about Jesus would be uncomfortable for me,” says Annie Roboff, who co-wrote “Santa’s on the Rooftop,” which was recorded in 1999 by entertainer Rosie O’Donnell and Country-music singer Trisha Yearwood.

Despite the songs’ non-religious themes, not all rabbis approve. Charles Savenor, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in the New York area, says he understands the “financial motivation for Jews to write this kind of music” and adds that “there’s something beautiful about Jewish songwriters giving voice to the spiritual aspirations of Christmas.” Yet, he says, “I’m not saying it’s completely OK.”

Rich, who is in his 50s, is known for writing hits in the 1980s and ‘90s for singers like Whitney Houston (he penned her hit “Run to You”), among others.

His “traditional” parents didn’t enjoy the holiday, but as a child Rich nevertheless fell in love with “Silent Night,” the Christian carol published in the 1800s. He sung it at parties when he started a singing career in New York. “I didn’t feel an affiliation with Jesus as being king of the Christians, but rather as someone who is very holy,” he says.

He first broke into the Christmas song market with “Hot, Hot Christmas,” which aired on a holiday episode of the popular TV show “Doogie Howser M.D.” in the early 1990s. “A Different Kind of Christmas,” a sorrowful ballad about celebrating the holiday in a post-9/11 world (“No one can protect us anymore”), was co-written and recorded by LeAnn Rimes for her 2004 holiday album. He laments that Houston didn’t show up to a scheduled recording session in 2003 to sing his and Jud Friedman’s “I’m Giving You My Heart for Christmas.”

This year, “Make It Christmas,” written by Rich and Steve Dorff (also Jewish) became the title track to a Country music album recorded by comedian and singer Rodney Carrington. The song asks listeners to use the spirit of the holiday – “goodwill toward men” – every day.

Growing up as a Jewish boy in New York, Hanukkah “wasn’t as exciting as Christmas,” says Dorff, the co-writer. “There wasn’t all the hoop-la, the Santa Claus.”

Some of the newest material from Jewish songwriters comes from brand-name acts, such as Diamond and Barry Manilow, who this year each released his third Christmas album, though both are filled mostly with renditions of classic songs rather than their own.

Diamond, known as the “Jewish Elvis,” included an uplifting tune he wrote called “Cherry Cherry Christmas,” which is currently the No. 8 adult contemporary song based on radio airplay, according to Billboard.com. Manilow is on tour promoting his own album and telling audiences he is their “skinny, Jewish Santa Claus.” (Through spokeswomen, the singers declined to comment for this article.)

Meanwhile, other accomplished songwriters, such as Grammy Award-winning singer Melissa Manchester, who had her bat mitzvah six years ago, are keeping alive old Christmas songs they wrote by playing them at concerts.

“It’s part of the spectrum of one’s artistic output to celebrate Christmas musically,” says the 58-year-old Manchester, who performed her 1998 song, “There’s Still My Joy,” last month in Palm Springs, Calif.

For some Jews, participating in Christmas as children filled them with guilt. Roboff of Los Angeles says she was “torn” as a child because she sang Christmas carols with friends and participated in her school’s Christmas music show even as she attended Hebrew school in White Plains, N.Y. “I wasn’t sure if I was doing a good thing or a bad thing,” she says.

In 1999 Roboff, who was known for writing the smash hit “This Kiss” for singer Faith Hill, was asked to write a track for Ms. O’Donnell’s Christmas album. It took one day for Roboff, 52 years old, and a Jewish colleague to write an upbeat, 1960’s-style pop song about spotting Santa on the roof of “our house” and describing it to skeptical family members.

The album, “A Rosie Christmas,” sold more than 1 million copies, Roboff says. At about 9 cents per copy, she and her colleague earned more than $90,000.

Roboff is currently trying to get a singer to record “Blame it on Christmas,” about missing far-flung friends during the holidays, which she wrote over 15 years.

David Zippel of New York believes one of his Christmas songs has a chance to become a popular classic, though it’s too early to tell. The Easton, Penn., native, who fondly recalls singing Christmas songs at elementary-school assemblies and exchanging gifts with non-Jewish friends, wrote “Just in Time for Christmas” for singer Nancy LaMott’s Christmas album in the mid-1990s. Earlier this week, Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, played LaMott’s rendition on the air.

The song, about being “disillusioned” with Christmas as a commercial holiday until “you showed me what Christmas was all about,” has been recorded by several other singers, including a Christian-music artist last year.

Most songwriters, Jews and non-Jews alike, struggle to find homes for their creations. Some put their faith in Justin Wilde (not Jewish), who specializes in placing Christmas songs in new records, television and other media and says the odds are daunting.

“Back when the major standards were released in the 1940s and ‘50s, 99 out of 100 singers didn’t write their own material,” Wilde says. “Now most of them do, and 95 out of 100 aren’t looking for new Christmas songs.”

Record labels also want singers to record older, “public domain” songs such as “O Holy Night” that won’t require paying songwriter royalties, he says.

Jim Vellutato, a vice president at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, says the public is satisfied with the old crop of songs. “People don’t buy Christmas albums for new songs; they buy them for traditional songs,” he says.

But Sandy Sherman of Palos Verdes, Calif., believes there’s room for more. A songwriter for 25 years, she has been pitching her latest Christmas anthem, “Rhythm of Joy,” a twang-y bluegrass song that says although the Christmas season “ain’t what it used to be,” it’s easy to gather loved ones, sing music, and “let your heart beat to the rhythm of joy, joy, joy!”

There are no takers yet. But her Christmas-song résumé already includes a hit — with children. In the 1990s, Sherman submitted “He Delivers” to Disney, which used it in a sing-along Christmas video that she says went on to sell more than 2 million copies. The Motown-inspired pop song, sung by Donald Duck, assures kids that Santa Claus won’t disappoint them and always “delivers.” Her inspiration: a pizza delivery ad.

“It is a privilege and honor to contribute in a positive way” to a Christian tradition because of its uplifting themes, says Sherman, who attends a reform Jewish synagogue. “After all, there are many spiritual paths and, in the end, they all lead to the same place.”

Famous Christmas Songs and Their Jewish Writers

“There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” — co written by Al Stillman
“Winter Wonderland” — Felix Bernard
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” — George Wyle
“White Christmas” — Irving Berlin
“Silver Bells” — Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
“We Need a Little Christmas” — Jerry Herman
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”; “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”; “A Holly, Jolly Christmas” — Johnny Marks
“Christmas Love Song” — Marilyn Bergman, Alan Bergman, Johnny Mandel
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) — Mel Tormé, Robert Wells
“Sleigh Ride” — Mitchell Parish
“Santa Baby” — Philip Springer, Joan Ellen Javits
“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” — Sammy Cahn, Julie Styne
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — Walter Kent, Buck Ram

Santa’s On The Rooftop:

He Delivers:

The Rhythm of Joy:

A Different Kind of Xmas:

Amir Efrati is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and can be reached at amir.efrati@wsj.com.

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