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Historian will tell how Jews ‘faced the music’
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Historian will tell how Jews ‘faced the music’

The close connection between American-Jewish songwriters and the music of World War II will be explored in depth in a program called, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey. Music and film clips will be featured in a multimedia presentation by Ed Shapiro of West Orange, a retired history professor at Seton Hall University, who said attendees should expect a detailed exploration of the subject.

He will explain “that there are two attitudes which predominated among American Jews prior to World War II: The first was insecurity; the second was insularity,” he said in a phone interview with NJJN. But American Jews came out of the war differently than they went in, he said, chiefly because of the contributions they made to the war effort, many of them cultural. 

Shapiro said Jewish composers made their mark in areas beyond Broadway and Hollywood musicals and the great American songbook. In the JHS program, in addition to surveying popular songwriters like Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart, he will also cover classical compositions by American Jews like Morton Gould and Aaron Copland.

Shapiro is especially fond of the works of Copland, who — as a gay and politically progressive Jewish man — faced estrangement from the American mainstream. But, said Shapiro, “he never denied being Jewish. Copland’s patriotism allowed him to become a full-blown American. His music was an avenue to become a mainstream American, despite his alienation.” Shapiro cited the fact that Copland’s most famous composition, “Fanfare for the Common Man” has been used as theme music for presidential inaugurations, a space shuttle flight, a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, Spike Lee’s film He’s Got Game, Olympic events, and National Hockey League games. “It is very inspiring, and you can feel its purpose when you hear it,” Shapiro said.

On the popular music level, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” written in 1918 and revised for a performance by Kate Smith for an Armistice Day radio broadcast in 1938, “became iconic because of her recording,” Shapiro said. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” written by Berlin in 1936, suggested it was time that Americans deal with the necessity of going to war against the Nazis with the line, “There may be trouble ahead.”

Less obvious but equally patriotic themes resonate through the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, which had its Broadway debut in 1943. Its title song contains the patriotic lines, “We know we belong to the land/ and the land we belong to is grand,” Shapiro noted. (Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II had a Jewish father and a Christian mother and was raised Episcopalian.)

Composer Earl Robinson, an African-American, and Abel Meeropol, a Jew, wrote a song called “The House I Live In” that became the basis of a popular short film featuring Frank Sinatra in 1945. The film, an attack on bigotry, won Academy and Golden Globe Awards the following year. Robinson and Meeropol wound up on the anti-communist blacklist in the 1950s.

Other wartime songs by Jewish composers were less controversial.

Jewish-American songwriter Walter Kent (ne Walter Kaufman) composed two war-related hits, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “There’ll Be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover.” Frank Loesser, who went on to write music and lyrics for such popular Broadway musicals as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, composed “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” in 1942 in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into the war.

Jews dominated musical theater and movies “partly because it was geographical,” with much of the country’s Jewish population living in New York and Los Angeles. “It is a genre that Jews were attracted to, and other than a few exceptions, such as Cole Porter, the Jews were enormously disproportionate,” said Shapiro. He added that Porter was quoted as telling Rodgers that he had discovered the secret formula for creating hit songs: “I’ll write Jewish tunes,” Porter reportedly said.

Shapiro also said that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the 1939 hit tune in The Wizard of Oz — music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, both Jews — “was written with Jews in mind, getting them out of Europe to come to the magical land of America.”

Shapiro, who spends half the year in Florida, is a member of two synagogues, Congregation Ohr Torah and Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David, both in West Orange.

One of his graduate students at Seton Hall was JHS executive director Linda Forgosh, who remains a great admirer. “He is a credit to the community as an author and first-rate historian,” she said. “When Ed tackles a subject, it’s been tackled.” 

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