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Oy Vey!

This New Album Celebrates All the Christmas Songs Written By Jews

The album contains recordings of old classics—“Winter Wonderland,” written by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith,  “The Christmas Song,” by Mel Torme and Robert Wells, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which was composed by Walter Kent, and “Little Drummer Boy,” co-written by Harry Simeone.

Kveller spoke with Joanie and Fyütch about how this album came to be, sharing the spotlight with their daughters, and their favorite holiday traditions.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about this album and how it came to be?

Joanie: About 8 years ago, I was reading an article about Christmas music and discovered that many of the most well-known Christmas classics are actually written by Jewish songwriters. I was very surprised at first but once I learned of the rampant antisemitism in every other industry at the turn of the century, it started to make sense that these songs were written out of necessity to survive in America and assimilate patriotically. The music industry and entertainment industry was not seen as glamorous nor a desirable line of work back then.

As a Jewish songwriter, I was instantly fascinated and wanted to create a collection of some of these songs but when remaking them it was important to me to make them different from anything anyone has heard from these classics. Those who know me know I love a good concept album with a twist!

I met hit-maker Fyütch when we performed together for WFUV during the pandemic and I became such a fan of his work, I knew we had to work together. I brought the idea to him and he was on board!

Fyütch: I’ve always wanted to make a Christmas album! Since Joanie and I became friends, we’ve been talking about ways to collaborate! When she brought me this album concept, I had no idea so many of my favorite Christmas songs had this largely unknown backstory with Jewish songwriters. I started thinking of ways we could reimagine them and put our spin on it.

Did you find out more about the Jewish songwriters behind these Christmas songs as you were recording this album? Any favorite stories about them? Any song that you were particularly surprised to discover was written by a Jewish songwriter?

Joanie: I spent a great deal of time on Wikipedia checking my list (and checking it twice) to make sure the songs we chose were in fact written or co-written by members of the tribe. I actually found a helpful article with a good list from Kveller and Buzzfeed and learned that one of my favorite Christmas tunes, “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) was penned by two Jewish songwriters, Mel Torme and Robert Wells. This is quite funny but I remember watching Night Court when I was little and don’t recall the jokes about Mel Torme… but apparently, the main character, Judge Harry Stone, was slightly obsessed with him. This long-running joke saved Mel’s career in real life and gave him a big boost- kind of like an old school version of Kate Bush’s Running up that Hill after appearing on Strangers Things.

Why did you choose not to include any Hanukkah specific songs on the album?

Joanie: We both wanted to create a true Christmas album for families of all ages so adding Hanukkah songs to the album was never the plan. My tip of the hat to my people was honoring the songwriters who penned these tunes and sharing with the world our contribution to Christmas. Bringing everyone together over the holidays no matter what one celebrates is the true goal. But, if it’s Hanukkah you want, I released a great Hanukkah tune last year called Like a Maccabee with Josh Shriber from Josh and the Jamtones and my song Spinning is on my Jewish kids album, Meshugana.

What was your approach to recording these classic songs? There are so many artists releasing new recordings of them every year—how do you keep it fresh?

Fyütch: The MUSIC is my favorite part of the holiday. I’ve always wanted to release a Christmas project. The music makes the Christmas spirit palpable, from the timeless melodies to the nostalgic lyrics. I knew the most important thing about approaching this music was to keep it magical. My ultimate holiday playlist features so many of the same songs reinvisioned by different artists during different time periods. So I wanted our project to complement that legacy but also stand out.

What is your personal favorite Christmas song? Hanukkah song?

Joanie: White Christmas and The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) are my two Christmas favorites. My favorite Hanukkah tunes are Don’t Let the Light Go Out by Peter Paul & Mary, Puppy for Hanukkah by Daveed Diggs.

Fyütch: “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway tops the list. It’s classic 70’s soul with that timeless voice. Stevie Wonder’s lyrics on “Someday at Christmas” get me every time. “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for / When we have found what life’s really worth / There’ll be peace on earth.”

Joanie — What were your feelings about Christmas growing up? And now? How do you approach it as a Jewish mother?

Joanie: When I grew up in Miami, Florida I felt extremely left out around Christmas. At our Temple it was all about Hanukkah—but in public (in schools at the mall…) it always felt like we had to convince people in order for Hanukkah to exist. My mother purchased the very first menorah for my elementary school just so there was some minimal representation for the Jewish students amongst the plentiful Christmas decorations. I was in the chorus each year in elementary school and high school and there was always an extremely long Christmas medley. We were lucky if I had a Little Dreidel made it in there. Bare minimum, right? Growing up, I felt a lot of trepidation surrounding my Judaism but now, even despite the ever-present antisemitism, I feel more proud than ever of my heritage. At the same time, I also love sharing holidays with my friends from other religions and cultures and learning about their traditions as well. At home, I teach my 7-year-old daughter about all cultures and holidays while explaining our history the best I can- and will continue to do so in an age appropriate way as she grows up.

Fyütch — have you ever celebrated Hanukkah?

Fyütch: No I haven’t, but this might be the year! I tried latkes for the first time with Joanie. My introduction to the holiday as a kid was actually Adam Sandler’s song on SNL haha.
What are your holiday plans this year? What are your family’s favorite holiday traditions?

Joanie: I haven’t made plans yet but I’m usually playing shows over Hanukkah. It would be fun to play a Christmas show with Fyütch though. Fingers crossed that will happen! Last year I bought an RBG Menorah (you’ll see it in the Decorating the Christmas Tree video) so she will always be part of our Hanukkah now- Ruth shining truth.

Fyütch: My daughter and I visit my parents and sister in Florida. I just got engaged, so my fiance is coming with us! We always trade gifts in the morning, eat, and watch movies. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so we got creative with gifts, especially my Mom! She’s mastered the art of thoughtful, silly gifts.

Tell me a little bit about what you’re hoping listeners will take from this album?

Joanie: For Christmas celebrators, I hope Oy Vey! Another Christmas Album becomes the new favorite Christmas album that the whole family can enjoy together. And for Jewish folx who feel a little guilty indulging in Christmas tunes, NO NEED! These songs are kosher!

Fyütch: I’m happy to contribute to the amazing existing tradition of Christmas music. Add this to your playlists. Revisit it every year. I have a feeling you’ll hear some of them in a movie or commercial one day. And to top it all off, we are educating people about the history of these songs in the process.   

Lior Zaltman is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife Magazine.

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