As this festive season of the year draws to a long-awaited close, I have to confess that, like so many members of other communities, I’ve been dreaming lately. Not of a white Christmas, particularly, but of “White Christmas” itself, the Irving Berlin song that has become virtually synonymous with the American idea of Christmas.
It’s no secret that Berlin was Jewish. Like Al Jolson, he was the son of a cantor and little Irving’s first language was Yiddish. Generations of listeners and commentators, though, have found nothing even remotely Jewish in anything Berlin wrote after such early novelty tunes as “Yiddisha Eyes,” “Yiddisha Nightingale,” “The Yiddisha Professor,” and “Yiddle on Your Fiddle Play Some Ragtime,” which have the same relation to Jewish culture as “Swanee River” does to African-American. Experts seem to be of the opinion that Berlin’s ancestral traditions are pretty much absent from any of the work for which he is remembered.
But “quandoque,” as the Latin poet Horace once wrote, “bonus dormitat Homerus, There comes a time when worthy Homer nods,” and that time seems to come at the end of “White Christmas.” “May your days be merry and bright,” is one of the well-known wishes with which the song concludes; anybody who’s ever offered or received a Yiddish greeting on Chanukah knows that the standard formula is a likhtikn un freylekhn khanike, “[may you have]”––here it comes––“a bright and merry Chanukah.” It might be mere coincidence, but I like to hope that it’s Chanukah’s revenge.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.
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