“Anyone who doubts that there is a distinctively Jewish character to, say, Gershwin’s music or Berlin’s or Harold Arlen’s should listen to ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ … and ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ … and ‘Stormy Weather.’ … It’s there in the plaintive undertow, the feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not very far from the moment’s joy,” writes David Lehman in his touching and thought-provoking new book, about how almost all of the great American songs (made famous by such non-Jews as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra) were written by Jews. He helps us understand how natural it should be that The Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen was the son of a cantor who incorporated “Over the Rainbow” into his Sabbath liturgy.
But not everyone liked their efforts, Lehman tells us. “Virgil Thomson, the composer and music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, dismissed George Gershwin’s music for Porgy and Bess as ‘gefilitefish scoring.’ Whether you you regard the comment as a slur or just a colorful way to register a criticism, it makes it plain that Thomson’s educated ear picked up the synagogue rather than the indigenous Gullah sound of Charleston…” Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, the series editor of The Best American Poetry, and the author of seven books of poems, most recently When a Woman Loves a Man. He obviously loves Jewish music (as my mother used to say, “What’s not to like?”) and includes this telling footnote: “To me,” said Lenny Bruce, “if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish…”