NEW YORK (JTA) — A few years ago, Southern California-based jazz guitarist Peter Curtis was rehearsing for a Christmas concert that involved a choir, but he needed to find a song to play by himself for a solo interlude. Curtis is Jewish and was far from a Christmas song connoisseur, so at first he thought he might play a Hanukkah song. But that felt out of place.
He eventually decided to find a middle ground and play a Christmas song written by someone Jewish. Curtis ended up performing a medley of “White Christmas,” by Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin), and “The Christmas Song,” written by Mel Torme (born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago) and Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson).
The experience piqued his interest in the larger repertoire of Christmas music by Jewish songwriters of the early to mid-20th century. Besides the two classics he performed at the concert, so many other big Christmas hits were written or co-written by Jews, from “Winter Wonderland” (music by Felix Bernard) to “Let It Snow” (music by Jule Styne, nee Stein, and lyrics by Sammy Cahn) to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (written by Johnny Marks, who composed several other famous Christmas tunes, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”).
Curtis, 49, who regularly plays live and is a music professor at Riverside City College in California, began researching the genre. That work culminated in his latest recording project, “Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend,” on which he performs 12 Christmas classics written by Jews on solo jazz guitar.
Curtis devised all the arrangements on the album and improvised heavily. The result is a light, sweet and original take on the classics, perfect for a holiday party.
The last track, which shares its name with the album title, is one he wrote for his non-Jewish girlfriend on the first Christmas they spent together.
Curtis’s research, which also delves into the broader Jewish influence on what is now referred to as “The Great American Songbook,” formed the basis of a talk he gave last Christmas for the University of California, Riverside’s Jewish studies lecture series. It was so successful that he’s giving the same lecture this year.
“If you imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas image, you can imagine that the music that would be playing in the background would be something like ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Winter Wonderland,’ which was written either by an Eastern European Jewish immigrant from the Lower East Side or a descendant of one of those people,” Curtis said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
To Curtis, the fact that Jews wrote so many Christmas classics isn’t a coincidence. From the 1880s to the 1920s, the United States experienced a huge influx of European Jewish immigrants. They weren’t readily welcomed into American society. Many universities had strict Jewish student quotas, and many industries weren’t keen on hiring Jews.
The music industry, however, was wide open, and Jews excelled in it. From about the dawn of the 20th century until the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s, pop music was dominated by Jewish songwriters. Most of it was done behind the scenes, with many songwriters changing their names to sound less Jewish.
Shut out from other parts of society, the Jewish songwriters created a new world of song that tied them directly to mainstream culture. Part of it came from a desire to prove their Americanness, Curtis argues, and it wasn’t restricted to pop. The famed classical composer Aaron Copland, for instance, was brought up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, but he ended up writing some of the most iconic pieces of Americana set in places far from the city, such as the ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo.”
“That he was so at pains to demonstrate his Americanness through music at a time when Jews were busy assimilating into American society doesn’t strike me as coincidental,” Curtis said. “It’s almost as if through the act of musical assimilation they created and/or popularized much of what we think of as… iconic American popular song.”
Curtis said the Jewish songwriters were even able to create the Christmas tunes without making them feel Christian or overtly religious.
“There’s no mention of Jesus, virgins, wise men, any of that stuff,” he said. “These are all secular songs about the season and the secular trappings of Christmas.”
On the album’s title track, on which he sings, Curtis jokes about offending opponents of intermarriage, but his own interfaith relationship has become more comfortable since the first Christmas he and his girlfriend Sophie spent together a few years ago. Last year, the couple put a Star of David ornament on top of their Christmas tree.
“At first that was really awkward for me, going and shopping for a Christmas tree with her and trying to feign interest in the subject,” he quipped. “But after I sort of thought of it differently, I realized the Christmas tree itself isn’t a Christmas symbol anyway. It’s just something that was appropriated from a pagan festival.”