Is it racism for a humor columnist to poke fun at Jews? Or just poor taste?
In his column this Sunday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Garrison Keillor mocked those “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year,” and said that Christians don’t write Rosh Hashanah songs, so Jews shouldn’t write Christmas songs.
Today, Minnesota JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs took Keillor on for his ignorance, pointing out several brilliant and beautiful songs that Jewish composers have written about Christmas, and chastising him for mucking up the holiday with jabs about other religions.
Here are the highlights of the two op-eds (with links to the full articles). Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
In his op-ed “Some things aren’t meant to be messed with: Christmas, with its original intentions and traditions, is one,” Garrison Keillor wrote:
[My two cents? Our materialist culture does ten thousand times more harm to Christmas then Jewish composers ever have. If you’re trying to get back to the core of Christmas, and make it “common” and “ordinary,” you’re picking a fight with the wrong folks.]
“And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.
Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.”
In his op-ed today, “Respect the Right of All People to Observe Their Faith as They See Fit,” Steve Hunegs, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, wrote about interfaith efforts in the Twin Cities, and praised Keillor for his past sensitive, intellectual and informative commentary on the Jewish community. Then, regarding Keillor’s thoughts about Christmas, he wrote:
“[T]elling non-Christian Minnesotans to “buzz” out of Christmas is not reflective of Jewish-Christian relations in the Twin Cities or its salutary and inspirational arc of the past decades. . . . Diluting faith is not the goal of these endeavors but rather working together to enhance the public good while addressing with mutual respect the issues which inevitably arise between faith groups. Nobody wants to take Jesus out of Christmas.”
And then Hunegs schooled Keillor on Christmas songs written by Jews:
“There has been smaltzy Christmas music written by Jews, but “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), far from being “dreck,” is a quintessential American story. Bob Wells and Mel Torme wrote this song in 1944 wishing Americans a Merry Christmas—not “Happy Holidays”—as Americans of all faiths were dying in the service of our country. In 1946, the song skyrocketed in popularity when it was recorded by Nat King Cole. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, another song written by Jewish songwriters, was the most requested song at Christmas USO shows during WWII. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” debuted on NBC with Bing Crosby singing on December 25, 1941, just two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack when Americans were resolute, but yearning for happier times. Leonard Bernstein’s orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah” is yet another example of the deep respect American Jewish musicians have for the celebration of Christmas and its musical expression in the United States.”
[My two cents?: I don’t know if Keillor meant to criticize the interfaith work of leaders and members of the Twin Cities’ various religious communities, but Hunegs is right that using Yiddish words like “dreck” to diss Christmas songs written by Jews is lame. If Jews are open-minded enough to listen to (at least once) the mormon Senator Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song, Keillor can take a hint from our incoming Christmas snowstorm and chill.]
What do you think? Chime in with your thoughts in the comments.
Keillor is just acting like one of the narrow-minded characters he uses in his stories. They seem charming until you get them talking about people who look or think different. Anyway I think the best and most eloquent take down of Keillor was published in MinnPost. Here it is:
The comments by Garrison Keillor are disappointing, particularly because he usually handles subjects like this with gentle humor and grace. It’s not the music or the musicians that mess up Christmas, after all, it’s the people who choose to buy into the co-opted consumerist version of it. Don’t like it? No need to rag on the Jews or anybody else. If Christmas isn’t what it ought to be, it’s up to Christians to figure out other ways to celebrate it.
My two cents… Anyway, thanks for the article. Lots of good writing on this site.
Garrison Keillor conveniently fails to mention White Chrismas, most likely one of the three MOST famous christmas songs of all times, written by a Jew. He is pompous to the nth degree as usual. His article fails to be witty because it is so easy to cite so many musical contributions by Jews.
Using Garrison’s logic, I wonder if he would support the position that Judaism was fine the way it was 2000 years ago and didn’t need anyone to “mess with it”, doesn’t need non-Jews to interpret Jewish prophets, and didn’t need to add a “new testament” based on the “old testament”? Or that the Catholic Church, which did a fine job celebrating Christmas for hundreds of years, didn’t need to be messed with by the Protestant Reformation?
Well, here’s another Christmas song for Mr. Keillor. It’s by Tom Lehrer, and it’s about the “true spirit” of Christmas in America.
Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say “when.”
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.
On Christmas Day you can’t get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
There’s time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.
Relations, sparing no expense’ll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
“Just the thing I need! How nice!”
It doesn’t matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What’s important is the price.
Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the Yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!
So let the raucous sleigh bells jingle,
Hail our dear old friend Kris Kringle,
Driving his reindeer across the sky.
Don’t stand underneath when they fly
I agree with Esther. Actually, it’s not a matter of opinion, she’s right. He acts these mindsets out not always through a specific character, but through the small town thinking of Lake Wobegon. Not every side of small town USA is quaint and wholesome. He acknowledges the shortcomings as well, and one of those shortcomings is not so much the blunt “racism” in the rural areas of Minnesota, but the misconceptions of Jews or other ethnicities.
I’m a Jew that lives in a small Northwestern Minnesota town. Most of the non-Jews here who knew of Keillor’s articles were appalled by it. It’s not a question of small town prejudice; rather, it is the open antisemitism of the Liberal intelligentsia of America’s big cities. Conservative small towners are more pro-Israel than big city machers like Keillor.
There is a “religious” Christmas with nativity scenes, midnight masses, and music celebrating the birth of Jesus, such as Handel’s Messiah, O Holy Night, etc. There is a “secular” Christmas, which involves gift giving, holiday lights, family reunions and the very date of Christmas, much of which dates all the way back to Constantine and the pagan holiday of “Sol Invictus”, which was appropriated by Christianity. Jewish songwriters limit themselves to writing about the secular aspects, such as the current version of Santa Claus (invented as an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola in 1924). I agree with Ted that perhaps he should address Christian appropriation of the Old Testament, White America appropriating African-American jazz and blues, or European America appropriating the lands taken from Native Americans and using tribal names for cities, states, bodies of water, etc. I personally believe that the writing of some of the most beautiful and cherished songs of the holiday season is the least objectionable of the above. Also, don’t forget that R.H. Macy’s was bought up by the Jewish Strauss brothers shortly before the Thanksgiving Day Parade was started.