Garrison Keillor on Christmas and the Jews: Funny Ha Ha or Not?

Rudolph: Written by a Jew

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:

“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.”

[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.]

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.

(Photo: DominusVobiscum)