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Art, deep as memory / At the holidays, the arts become especially personal, shot through with ritual and family tradition. On these pages, six encounters with words, images and music that left their mark on our writers.

For Christmas Jews, wherever you are

December 23, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

What would Christmas be without Christmas Jews? I'm not thinking of the originals, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but of their distinguished musical co-religionists: Irving ("White Christmas") Berlin, Mel "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" Torme and the Brooklyn trinity of Streisand, Diamond and Manilow. Babs, Barry and Neil have dueled through the decades to see who can record the most Christmas albums, and mazel tov to Manilow, because his new one, "In the Swing of Christmas," just put him in the lead with three.

And then there was Mr. Witten -- and me.

Streisand went ecumenical in '67 with "A Christmas Album," more than a decade before Diamond or Manilow caught the spirit. But Mr. Witten and I were Christmas Jews first, as collaborators in the momentous Daniels Farm School Sixth Grade Christmas Concert of 1966. I don't know why or how Mr. Witten got the job -- Angelic annunciation? Principal's fiat? Leonard Bernstein ("Mass") fantasy fulfillment? -- but somehow my amiably exacting homeroom and language arts teacher was named our maestro. Under his direction: a hundred or so 11- and 12-year-olds of wildly uneven singing ability, who would provide yuletide inspiration and regalement -- one night only! Or was it two? -- for whomsoever among the 25,000 souls of Trumbull, Conn., cared to be rested merry in a cafeteria-cum-auditorium that wasn't many years removed from being a cow pasture.

Mr. Witten threw himself into the job with a passion that, from where I sat rum-pa-pum-pumming in the back row with the other boy altos, seemed almost obsessive. Rehearsals must have begun around Halloween, and time was carved from each school day to hone our "Silent Night," "First Noel" and the rest of an exhaustive repertoire that was not watered-down "holiday" fare but a full-on celebration of the birth of Our (Majority Rules) Lord.

Our leader, with his short, dark hair, smooth-shaven face and ever-present sport jacket and tie, would conduct himself into a sweat, the hardest-working Christmas Jew in showbiz -- an incarnation far preferable to the usual Mr. Witten, the chalk-in-hand grammarian and creator of snaking, many-pronged sentence diagrams that stretched like Chinese dragons across the blackboard.

I was not raised to be a Christmas Jew. My mother loves telling the story of how a shopkeeper asked my 4-year-old self what I wanted for Christmas, to which I piped up, "I'm a little Jewish boy, and I don't get Christmas presents." But at 5 I was singing "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" in Chinese, thanks to Miss Snow and Miss Winter, the kindergarten teachers. By second grade I had memorized "The Lord's Prayer" -- which is what teachers expected us to recite each morning in those days. A town where you could get good lox, this was not. For that you had to go nearly 20 miles to New Haven, where Mr. Witten lived.

I got the flu as Christmas approached, and the big concert rum-pummed without me. I felt no loss, despite the wasted effort. It isn't my holiday. As for Mr. Witten, if forces driving him that yule season came from above (in the school bureaucracy, I mean), they evidently found the results satisfactory. He wound up a middle-school principal in Trumbull, and I never thanked him for being one of those indispensable teachers who drive home the hard effort involved in learning, and a good deal of the pleasure too.

Thirty-five years later I had my long-deferred baptism as a performing Christmas Jew, singing "God's Gift to Women" at a toy-fund benefit at Alex's Bar, a punk-rock dive in Long Beach. My own original, it was a blues song about remaining sadly unkissed under the mistletoe and lamentably unopened under the tree, outshone by gaudier packages of masculine appeal. "But I'm God's gift to women," I pleaded. "Just unwrap me and it will show."

Irving Berlin, Mel Torme -- move over. Babs, honey, it won't work for you, but Neil, Barry -- take it from an experienced Christmas Jew: This one's pure gelt.


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