Did you know that a great deal of Christmas songs were actually written by Jews? That’s right, the songs that keep playing in stores and doctor’s offices for months leading on to Christmas were written by Jews — from “Santa Baby” to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
A new album released this month from Grammy award winning Jewish musician Joanie Leeds and Grammy-award nominated rapper Fyütch highlights is dedicated to those songs. It’s called “Oy Vey! Another Christmas Album,” but honestly, listening to these fresh new recordings will have you kvelling — not kvetching.
The reason why so many Jews wrote Christmas tunes, is surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, pretty relevant at this moment in which antisemitism is once again making headlines.
As Leeds explained in an interview with Kveller, once she realized how rampant antisemitism was in almost every industry at the time these songs were created “it started to make sense that these songs were written out of necessity to survive in America and assimilate patriotically.”
The album contains recordings of old classics — “Winter Wonderland,” written by 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.
Yet it’s the original songs in the album that are the best part in it — the nondenomenotional “Every Day’s a Holiday,” and “The Christmas Tree,” which may be my new favorite Christmas song ever.
The song, which is sung by the artists’ daughter Joya, 7, and Aura, 5, is all about the joys of decorating a Christmas tree with your friends. Making the video for it was also Joya’s first experience decorating the Christmas staple —”I spun the dreidel, I lit the menorah, I’ve lit the candles and I’ve danced the horah, but I’ve never had the opportunity to decorate the Christmas tree,” she sing in the song.
And watching her and Aura decorate the Christmas tree and spin dreidels together in the new video for the song released today is honestly almost too adorable.
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!
We released our first single last winter (“Winter Wonderland”) and it immediately charted on Sirius/XM Kids Place Live. Then we took the year to complete the album. In addition to the classic cover songs, created two originals and music videos to accompany them. It was a true collaboration and I am excited to share these beloved Christmas tunes with both Christmas celebrators and the Jewish community.
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.
Tell me about the choice to include your daughters on this album? What was it like recording with them?
Fyütch: Our daughters are young superstars that we’ve featured in our songs before! We decided early in the brainstorming process that we wanted to make an original Christmas song just for them. Joanie came up with the concept of my daughter Aura showing her daughter Joya how to decorate a Christmas tree for the first time. I love that the girls are trading rap bars back and forth! The process to actually record them, though?! That was pretty hard. There are a lot of lyrics. So we broke up the phrases for them, and did a ton of takes. It was so worth it because they LOVE how it turned out, and it’s easily one of the standout songs from the project. Also, this is a great memory to cherish for future Christmases and a great gift to my family. Literal cuteness overload with the dopest beat.
I love “The Christmas Tree!” Did Aura and Joya really end up decorating the tree together?
Joanie: Yes! The girls have had a few playdates together prior to filming (and this is also not their first rodeo!) so they knew each other already and understood exactly what to do on set. While it was a video shoot, there was definitely some playdate time in there too. They ate latkes for snack and spun the dreidel during breaks.
Fyütch: Yeah, that video shoot was EPIC. We were in a beautiful apartment with a giant tree, and the girls acted out every word of the song.
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: As the girls stated in the album intro, 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. I love how artists like Cee-lo, Ariana Grande, and Sia have wildly different genres and interpretations, but they all seem to blend together under the theme and spirit. So that’s why our album has Pop, R&B/Soul, and Rap elements throughout it. I wanted our original songs to be just as catchy as the classics. I think we accomplished creating songs that immediately get stuck in your head and you can sit and listen with the family every year.
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 everytime. “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.
Find “Oy Vey! Another Christmas Album” on Apple Music, Soundcloud and Spotify