Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

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Was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Jewish?

Having married into an interfaith family that has both Jewish and Christian traditions, it sometimes forces me to reconsider my own traditions in a different light.  I was in the midst of doing various things for the Hanukkah celebration with my wife’s family, when I started listening

Rudolph's lesser known cousin Shimmel

to Barry Manilow’s version (don’t hold it against me) of “Rudolph” on CD.  It was actually pretty good, so I started listening to it again.  On the second time around, it occurred to me that one of the undercurrents of the song is “alienation” from the elements of Christmas. 

For some reason, I’ve been fascinated with my recent discovery that many famous Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters.  “Rudolph”, it turns out, is no exception.  However, before for I delve too deep, I just want to differentiate that there is “Rudolph” the original story written by Robert L. May and “Rudolph” the popular song adapted by his brother-in-law Johnny Marks. 

So the story goes, in 1939 Robert L. May was a copywriter for  the Montgomery-Ward department store chain and created the original story of “Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer” as a promotional gimmick.  Yes, that’s right, the most famous reindeer of all started out as a commercial. The popular history is that May drew from the “Ugly Duckling” tale and pitched it to his boss, who after some coaxing green-lighted the project and the story became a runaway success.  In the midst of creating the story, May’s wife had a terminal illness and died around the same time May finished “Rudolph”.  Not only was May deeply in debt from medical bills, Montgomery-Ward owned the rights to “Rudolph” and so he did not see a cent in the beginning from the licensing.  Eventually, May was able to secure the license from Montgomery-Ward and he and his family lived comfortably for the rest of his days. 

However, if you consider that May was drawing from the Jewish-American experience around Christmastime, the story seems to take on a new dimension.  Imagine if you are a Jewish copywriter in the 1930s mid-west trying to come up with ideas for Christmas promotions or being ostracized around the Christmas season by your peers.  Phrases such as “People used to laugh and call him names” or “They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games” take on a whole new meaning. However, It is unclear from the 15 minutes of in-depth research that I did whether May himself was actually Jewish.  However, his brother-in-law Johnny Marks was definitely Jewish.  So that strongly suggests that at the very least his wife was Jewish. 

However, as sources such as snopes.com point out, the original story “Rudolph” differs significantly from the song written by Marks.  One can safely say then that the song version of “Rudolph” comes from the Jewish-American perspective. Although this is wild speculation, one wonders if Marks was thinking about Mays’ or his own Jewish-American experience when he penned these lyrics about a once-ostracized Rudolph who gained acceptance from his peers at Christmas: “Then all the reindeer loved him/As they shouted out with glee,/Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,/You’ll go down in history!”

Either way, it’s still a great song and undeniably gets everyone, perhaps even a few Jewish listeners, in the holiday spirit.

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