Tomorrow is the first night of the eight-day Festival of Lights known as Hanukkah. Unlike last year’s freakishly early Hanukkah (a quirk of the Hebrew calendar), this year’s celebration will butt up right to Christmas. But dare I say it? As an observant Member of the Tribe, I’ve always secretly preferred the red and green bacchanalia of the Christmas season to the pallid blues and whites of Hanukkah. I don’t think I’m alone. Let’s face it — Jews own Christmas! Not only is the holiday celebrating the birth of one of our own, yuletide culture just wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of Jewish songwriters, singers, and actors. Try to imagine the holidays without “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and even “Santa, Baby” — every single one of them written by card-carrying Jews.
How do you like the above photo of Scarlett Johansson as one of Santa’s sexy helpers? Yes, despite the Danish surname, Scarlett is a bona fide Heeb. Her mother is an Ashkenazi Jew and the actress self-identifies as Jewish. Remember, Judaism is matrilineal so you’re automatically Jewish if your mother is. That means both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are intergalactic Jews (thanks to Israeli-born Natalie Portman). The list of current Jewish actors who may have hung a few ornaments on a Christmas tree includes Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, James and Dave Franco, Joaquin Phoenix, Winona Ryder, Adrien Brody, Evan Rachel Wood, Jason Segel, Daniel Radcliffe, Seth Rogen, Shia LaBeouf, Mila Kunis, Andrew Garfield, Jesse Eisenberg, and Lena Dunham. Who knew? But let’s go back a bit and see some of our favorite Jewish movie stars mixing it up for the holidays.
Lauren Bacall. Born Betty Joan Perske to immigrants from Poland and Romania, here’s Betty with hubby Humphrey Bogart and their son Stephen who grew up to look an awful lot like Dad. Stephen was only eight years old when his father died of cancer, and we sadly lost 89-year-old Lauren Bacall earlier this year. The actress, a first cousin to Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister and President of Israel, made her first film, the wonderful To Have and Have Not, 70 years ago and kept working until shortly before her death.
Paulette Goddard. Born Pauline Levy, the underrated Goddard gets special mention because she played Miriam Aarons, the only Jewish character in MGM’s brilliant 1939 classic The Women, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce. Goddard came close to getting the part of Scarlett O’Hara that year which would have changed her career in a big way but she made a lot of good films and was nominated for an Oscar in 1943 for So Proudly We Hail. But the talented actress may be more well-known today for her husbands: Charlie Chaplin (they were together for six years but there’s debate about their actual marital status), Burgess Meredith, and Erich Maria Remarque. Goddard died in 1990.
Eddie Cantor and Shelley Winters. Do you recognize Santa in this photo taken at the Hollywood Canteen in December 1943? It’s Eddie Cantor, born Edward Israel Iskowitz in 1892 to Russian immigrants in New York. It was Eddie Cantor who introduced the song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934. To the far left is Oscar winner Shelley Winters, born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis to Austrian Jewish parents. Shelley started out as a blonde sex symbol and was good friends with young Marilyn Monroe (a converted Jew). She won an Oscar for playing Mrs. Van Daan in George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank. Shelley Winters died in 2006.
George Burns. Born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896 to Romanian-Jewish immigrants, George started working in showbiz at the age of seven and had great success throughout his long career in vaudeville, movies, radio, and TV. His beloved wife and partner, Gracie Allen (I wonder how his family dealt with him marrying an Irish Catholic girl) died in 1964 but George’s career was resurrected when he was in his 80s. He toured extensively, played God in several movies, and appeared frequently on television. Burns lived to be 100 years old.
Jack Benny. We also salute Benjamin Kubelsky, born to Polish-Jewish immigrants in Chicago in 1894. The violin-playing Benny entertained the troops during World War I, toured in vaudeville, and met a Jewish girl named Sadie Marks at Zeppo Marx’s Passover seder. He married the girl who then changed her name to the shiksa-sounding Mary Livingstone. Jack Benny was a pioneer in both radio and TV. His movie career was more limited but he and Carole Lombard were brilliant as two actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be or Not to Be. Did anyone have a better comic delivery than Jack Benny? “Your money or your life!” Long pause. “Well?” “I’m thinking it over!” Jack Benny died the day after Christmas in 1974.
Danny Kaye. Brooklyn-boy David Daniel Kaminsky starred in White Christmas, one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time, with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. Danny’s parents were Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. Danny Kaye made many wonderful movies including Hans Christian Anderson, The Court Jester, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s a famous story of Jewish studio head Sam Goldwyn ordering Kaye to get a nose job in the 1940s because he looked “too Jewish.” The actor refused.
Dinah Shore. Did you know that the lovely songstress was born Frances Rose Shore to Russian Jewish immigrants? Her parents settled in Tennessee of all places which accounted for Shore’s decidedly un-Jewish accent. In the 1970s, Dinah Shore was known for her relationship with Burt Reynolds, 20 years her junior, but my favorite Dinah Shore memory is her appearance on Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) appears on Dinah’s talk show and destroys her burgeoning country music career by saying that she was surprised that all the Jews who worked on Dinah’s show were so nice considering the fact that they killed the Lord! Dinah Shore died in 1994.
Barbra Streisand. For our last yuletide-loving Jew, we turn to a superstar who has practically made a career out of Christmas. For a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, Barbra Streisand seems to come out with a new Christmas album every year. The first one was released in 1967 and has gone platinum five times over. Her snappy rendition of “Jingle Bells” mentions Fanny Brice but the album is not limited to secular tunes. No one can match Streisand’s “Ave Maria” in my book and she also knocks “The Lord’s Prayer” out of the ballpark if that’s not too sacrilegious to say. Oy, I wonder what Barbra’s mother thought of it all! Babs won an Oscar for her first movie role, Funny Girl, a whopping 46 years ago and is still going strong. Merry Christmas, Yentl!