The songs that make up the Christmas soundtrack – favourites like Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Christmas Song and Let It Snow! – were penned by the children of Jewish immigrants, who lived in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
With most professions closed to them and limited access to higher education, musically talented young people gravitated to show business. Jewish songwriters, outsiders in American society, wrote songs that celebrate the holiday season, creating secular music that everyone, including Jews, could enjoy.
The songs were the inspiration for Toronto jazz singer Sam Broverman’s annual seasonal show, “A Jewish Boy’s Christmas.” Launched six years ago, the show has evolved to include comedy – parodies and novelty songs written by Broverman.
Broverman has recorded songs he performs at the show on his latest CD, A Jewish Boy’s Christmas, to be released this month. The album includes straight-ahead Christmas music, like The Christmas Song, co-written by Mel Torme; several comic songs, most of them seasonal, and holiday-themed covers by Tom Lehrer and Tom Waits.
What’s A Jew Got To Do On Christmas? is one of the best of Broverman’s efforts, both as a song and as a parody. It has a lovely, relaxed melody and its sung beautifully by Broverman in his mellow baritone. The song begins on a plaintive note with the singer wondering: “What’s a Jew to do on Christmas but think of all the fun he’s missed.” The singer would love to open presents on Christmas morning, but is fearful the rabbi would give him a warning, or even “excommunicate” him from the “chosen few,” so he settles for a movie and Chinese food instead.
“I just thought about how I spend Christmas Day. My wife and I would often go to a movie and a restaurant,” Broverman said. “Part of the thing about parody and fun songwriting is to take it to a bit of an extreme. The more absurd, somehow the better. I let my imagination take me away and as long as it’s within reasonably good taste, I’ll try to include it.”
He said one of the highlights of recording the CD was the chance to speak to Lehrer, whose Hanukkah in Santa Monica is on Broverman’s CD. Lehrer is a legendary singer-songwriter and satirist who recorded in the 1950s and ‘60s. Broverman, who’s learning Yiddish, translated part of Lehrer’s song, a fun, rhyming tune that’s not intended to be satirical, into Yiddish. Broverman was delighted when Lehrer gave him permission to use the translation.
At his seasonal shows, Broverman is joined by a guest vocalist, the velvet-voiced Whitney Ross-Barris. On the album, she sings two songs of her choice – the haunting 16th-century Coventry Carol, about Herod ordering all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed, and Waits’ slyly humorous, Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis, a change of pace from Christmas standards.
The album features some of Toronto’s top jazz players, including Drew Jurecka on violin and clarinet; Peter Hill on piano; Ken Whiteley on guitars and organ; Jordan O’Connor and Ross MacIntyre on bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums.
Originally from Winnipeg, Broverman put himself through graduate school, where he studied mathematics, singing with the 16-voice choir on Hymn Sing, the longest running nationally-televised CBC show. Since 1980, he’s been teaching actuarial math at the University of Toronto.
While math is one of his loves – he’s written several books on actuarial science – so is songwriting. A Jewish Boy’s Christmas, with its original content, is a departure from Broverman’s three previous CDs, whose focus was the Great American Songbook. “I do love to write and I love to write parody,” he said. “I like to write other songs as well, so we’ll see how that works out.”
Broverman performs “A Jewish Boy’s Christmas” at the Jazz Bistro, 251 Victoria St. Toronto, on Dec.16 at 7 p.m..