Last year, during the pandemic, I eavesdropped the most brilliant piece of classroom third-rail navigation I’ve ever seen in my life.
This was in my then-third grader’s Zoom music class (we’ll leave for another day any discussion of the crime against humanity that is “grade-school Zoom music class”).
This is always a fraught time of year for grade-school music teachers: They wanna sing Xmas songs, most of the kids wanna sing Xmas songs, but the constant Othering definitely grinds away at the Jewish kids (esp. when they try and “include” you be singing the “Dreidel Song”; that song is crap, and we know it. The Xmas songs are way better).
So in my daughter’s class, the teacher shows this slide: it’s an unremarkable middle-aged White dude, “Mitchell Parish.” Who the heck is Mitchell Parish? Well, he was born in Lithuania, and brought here by his parents, who were Jews (my daughter immediately perks up; Jews! Like us!) and he was a popular songwriter in New York in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s—and he wrote the lyrics to “Sleigh Ride”!
*advance to next slide*
*kids sing “Sleigh Ride”*
*EVERYONE IS A WINNER!*
My daughter felt seen, gentiles got their Christmas carol, and no one had to sing the goddamned “Dreidel Song.”
So there’s the trick to getting to sing Christmas carols in public school:
Start out with a brief bio of the Jews who wrote your Xmas song
(all your favorite Xmas songs were written by Jews; you’re welcome).
Heck, you can do a whole Winter Concert—featuring “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Run, Run Rudolph”—on just a single bio slide: All four of those classics were written by the same Jew (the inimitable Johnny Marks, whose Jewish brother-in-law was the guy who created Rudolph to begin with).
This is my new favorite Xmas album.
I listen to music basically whenever I write, often as a simple practical matter (I have a wife, a barky-bary-bark, two school-age kids at home, and a house that backs up to an apartment parking lot). What I’m listening to during a given period often seeps into what I’m writing. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Fire in the Hole” every morning while working on the middle section of this novel—both the longest and darkest (“Where There is Nothing, There is God”—itself a title stolen from William Butler Yeats.) At some point, I’d gotten the notion in my head that the narrator of the song was a waiter/actor, which is why the protagonist is a waiter/actor. Looking at the lyrics now, I have no idea where I got that impression. (I’m told Fagen—who co-wrote the song—said in an interview that it was about dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, which makes a lot more sense than my interpretation of the song.) Doesn’t really matter; it was always the piano that caught my mind. It’s the piano, more than the words, that seeped into that story.
I’m a Jew—born and raised—but I come from a “mixed” family (they say “interfaith” now). My dad is a Jew, but my mom was raised Christian. Both my maternal grandparents—with whom I spent a lot of time growing up—were practicing Christians. Far from shockingly, my own marriage is mixed (my wife was raised Catholic, our kids are Jews who end up participating in a lot of Xtian traditions). Interfaith families are really common now, but were much less so when I was young.
As you’re likely aware, back when I was a kid there weren’t a lot of Xanukah songs for us Jewish kids. There weren’t many songs for Jewish kids, but there were some; there were absolutely zero songs for mixed half-a-Jews with an Xmas tree and a Xanukiah and a cat that managed to catch fire in the Xanukah candles every year and Xtian grandparents who came to town on Xmas Eve specifically to partake in the Jewish tradition of Xmas Chinese food.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we’re sort of a nation that always wants everyone to be one thing or another thing—black or white, nerd or jock, Jew or Gentile, girl or boy—and doesn’t have much patience for things that are mixed and ambiguous and a lil-o’-both. I was in my 20s, and in a Women’s Studies class, before I learned what the hell “intersectionality” was, and my identity began to make any sense to me.
This year—for the third year running—my local Jewish Community Center is collecting donations of Christmas presents, to be given to the Syrian refugees relocated here.
On the one hand, that sounds almost too perfectly absurd: Jews giving Muslims Christmas presents. On the other, it feels like basically the most perfect possible introduction to America.🕎🎄☪🇺🇸
Anyway, there weren’t many mixed kids like me when I was growing up—and there weren’t any songs or holiday specials or children’s books that reflected what I saw and felt and loved about wintertime.
So these are my songs, for all the little intersectional mixed kids out there, who don’t have any holiday songs to sing.
I’ve got your new Thanksgiving Tradition right here.
You can thank me later: