These Classic American Songs Were Written By Jewish Women – Kveller
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These Classic American Songs Were Written By Jewish Women

From "The Way You Look Tonight" to “The Best Is Yet To Come.”


Did you know that many of the classic American songs you love were written by Jewish women? From Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” with lyrics written by Dorothy Fields, to “The Party’s Over,” with lyrics by Betty Comden (and which was popularized by another Jewish woman, Judy Holliday), Jewish women played a huge role in the Great American Songbook.

If you didn’t know that, a new album from accomplished jazz singer Hadar is here to help by celebrating the amazing Jewish women behind the songs that are an indelible part of American history. In “Witchcraft: The Jewish Women of the Great American Songbook,” the new mom and former IDF officer, whose original songs can be heard in Netflix shows like “Startup” and the upcoming “The River Wild,” gives rousing, emotionally resonant recordings of the songs written by these creators who faced so much adversity in their career.

There’s Bronx born-street fighter and secretary Carolyn Leigh, who gave us some of Sinatra’s biggest hits, including “Young At Heart.” Ann Ronell, born Rosenblatt, wrote “Willow Weep for Me,” which was rejected by many publishers before becoming one of her biggest hits — and being recorded over 800 times. And Fields, who Hadar considers “one of the most significant female writers of the Great American Songbook,” didn’t even get support from her own Jewish father, Lew Fields, who wanted to stop her from pursuing a career in the arts.

Kveller spoke with Hadar about “Witchcraft,” how motherhood has impacted her work, and why it’s important to highlight these incredible women at this point in history.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Tell me a little bit about how this album came to be. What was the process of selecting the songs?

A few years ago I was invited by the Streicker Center at Temple Emanuel [in New York] to sing with my jazz trio at a reception for President Barack Obama. While putting my setlist together, I discovered that an overwhelming number of tunes written for the Great American Songbook were written by Jewish writers. I had no idea! Cole Porter aside, they practically wrote it all!

I released my first album, “It Never Was You – Jazz by Jewish Composers,” in December of 2019. Shortly after the release, the pandemic broke and I was forced to tour virtually from my NYC home studio. With the help of my incredibly talented and vision-driven husband Sheldon Low, we put together a fully produced, live band, storytelling concert of the album, featuring the music and the stories behind the music of these wonderful writers.

I was able to connect with my fans in a much more personal and intimate way. Fans made requests for other Gershwin and Hammerstein tunes. While I absolutely love these writers and their incredible music, I knew that whatever struggles they must have had being Jewish and trying to “make it” were probably minuscule compared to their female colleagues. So I did a little more research and discovered some of the brilliant, fierce and beautifully talented Jewish women behind some of the most iconic songs in history. I’m thrilled to share their stories and songs with the world. In the midst of rising antisemitism and a war on women’s rights, I wanted a project that would highlight and celebrate Jewish women. This album is my way of saying we’re here and we’re not going anywhere… and we’re also really talented and awesome.

Did you have a personal connection to these songs before working on this album?

I knew a lot of the tunes before I recorded them but I wasn’t aware of the fact that they were written by Jewish women. When I decided to record this album, I was so inspired by these women and their stories. That extra dimension of knowing how some of the most well-known and iconic songs in history came to be is when I really fell in love with the music and these talented writers. I feel extremely connected to these songs.

As a new mom, has motherhood changed your approach to your work?

I look at my life as two separate parts. The life before Amelia and the life after. Years ago, before I became a mother, I tried convincing my own mother to move to NYC and raise my unborn child so I could keep touring and making albums. My mom, who is the most amazing grandma one could hope for (and truth be told, would probably move in with me just so she could see my daughter every day) laughed at me and said, “You know, you might actually enjoy motherhood.” And she was right. I love making music and performing and everything around the “stage” life, but as Brandi Carlile wrote in her song “The Mother,” “None of that is ever who we are.” Amelia is who I am. She is the biggest, deepest and most fulfilling gig of my life.

So recording this album, like everything else I do outside of being Amelia’s mom, took longer, required harder work and more efficiency, but it was also a motivator — this album was for her.

I think a lot of people don’t actually know that much about quite a few of the women you highlight in this album. Did you learn anything interesting or surprising about these Jewish creators as you were working on “Witchcraft”?

Everyone knows the music, which is what makes these songs some of the most time-tested iconic songs in history, but not everyone knows the funny, fascinating and sometimes heart-wrenching stories behind the music and the amazing female Jewish writers behind them. So during my performances, before I perform each song, I tell a story about one of the writers. Sometimes my audiences tell me that they aren’t sure if they loved the music or the stories more.

The stories are incredible on their own, but it’s important to put them into context. The women from my album had incredible success overcoming social norms to work in a man’s industry. They faced antisemitism and in some cases, their own family’s disapproval. So they were trailblazers and revolutionaries.

I don’t want to give all of the stories away (you’ll have to come to a show!) but here are just some of my favorite things I learned. In a world when most women songwriters were strictly lyricists and librettists, Ann Ronell was one of the first writers to write both lyrics and melody. She had the first hit Disney song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and the first featured theme song behind credits in a film.

Ruth Low is also known for writing both lyrics and melody and contributed to the creation of the Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame. Carolyn Leigh wrote the last song Sinatra ever performed and the lyrics of that song — “The Best Is Yet To Come” — were inscribed on his tombstone. Betty Comden and Dorothy Fields, who were two of the most significant female Jewish writers of the Great American Songbook, have won Oscars, Tonys and Grammy awards amongst many other accomplishments. The list goes on. I think this album is best summed up, as the author Debbie Burke wrote, as my “love letter” to Jewish women songwriters.

How do you think their Judaism and womanhood impacted their success?

To summarize it in two words: moxie and chutzpah. They all had it! The fact that they were Jewish and women probably meant they had to work twice as hard, and I know in many cases they had to go against the wishes of their family and friends.

If there’s one thing you can say about Jews, we’re resilient. We joke that every Jewish holiday can be summed up as, “They tried to destroy us, we won, let’s eat,” and for better or worse, I think that’s a lesson that secular and religious Jews all learn. I’m sure it was in the bones of these writers. Also remember that many of these songs were written by immigrants or children of immigrants to America. I know first hand that moving to a foreign country takes a lot of hope, courage and hard work, so whether the writers immigrated to America or witnessed and inherited those values, I’m sure that played a part.

Of course, resilience is a requisite for being a woman, especially at that time. It’s just what we do. If you can channel it, like these women did against all odds, you’re unstoppable. You just might do something that lasts forever.

This is a complex and rapidly changing moment for women’s rights and Jews both in the U.S. and in your native Israel. What does it feel like to highlight the work of these Jewish women in this particular climate?

It feels like, if there was ever a time in history for this album to be made, it’s now. I am in complete disbelief by what’s been going on around us, both here in the U.S. and back home. I sometimes think I’m in a bad dream that I need to be woken up from. It literally keeps me up at night thinking of my daughter Amelia’s future as a Jewish woman. Where will she go if antisemitism keeps rising? What will she do if Israel is no longer a safe place for her? But I try to draw strength and hope from the women who have seen it all and been through worse. I hope this album will inspire others in the same way. Dorothy Fields once wrote (and was later quoted by Barack Obama), “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

What are you hoping that listeners will take from this album?

More than anything, I hope they learn about the incredible songwriters and recognize the important role Jewish women played in creating a uniquely American artform and some of the best songs in history.

You can listen and purchase “Witchcraft” here.

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