Happy Valentine’s Day!
Bringing you eighteen famous love songs, nine by interfaith songwriters and nine by Jewish songwriters, and more!
My annual article on Jews who wrote famous Christmas songs has proven to be a popular favorite. With Valentine’s Day coming up, I decided to do something similar. After all, this site centers around people who are Jewish and those who aren’t that fall in love and often have children. Love, that main Valentine’s Day theme, is, in some sense, an underpinning of InterfaithFamily.com’s existence.
It’s no secret that tons of well-known love songs have been written by Jewish songwriters. But how to choose which songs would make this list?
I decided to start with capping my Valentine’s list to those of interest to InterfaithFamily.com’s reader, and keep the list to a number of tunes. And what better number than 18. Why 18?
18 is a lucky Jewish number. The number is expressed in Hebrew by the letters “het” and “yud” which together spell the word “chai,” which also means life. And, you know, almost all of us want to be lucky in love.
Then I thought, let’s divide the list into two parts. The first nine songs were written by songwriters of mixed Jewish and not Jewish backgrounds. Some of you may not be aware of their background and I’ve laid it out very briefly. I also link to a biography of the songwriter.
I tried to mix things up in terms of genre and the release dates of the songs. They are all good love songs, but I make no claim that they are the absolute best of their genre or the best love song ever penned by the songwriter. They are, I think, an interesting and entertaining mix.
The second group of nine love songs were written or co-written by Jewish songwriters. But the linked performances are all by singers who are not Jewish. In a couple of cases, they are performed by singers who were or are romantically involved with and/or married to Jews. Most of the songs are of the “I love you” type, a few are regretful love songs, and one is a song about love gone wrong.
Overall, I think it’s a pretty varied collection with something for lovers of any age. The entire list has an eclectic interfaith feel (for lack of a better term).
I leave it to you to read the references and listen to the songs at your own pace. In “old school” terms, this list would make a really interesting mix tape. Create a Youtube play list of these songs, play them for your sweetie or your friends, and see if they can guess the connections I have laid out above.
The Front Nine: Popular Love Songs by Interfaith Songwriters
In alphabetical order, based on the last name of the songwriter, they are:
- Songwriter: Marty Balin (co-writer)
Song: “Today” (1967)
Jefferson Airplane; Balin, most famous as a member of the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, is the (secular) son of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish.
- Songwriter: Vanessa Carlton
Song: “A Thousand Miles” (2002)
Carlton, now 30, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a father who is not Jewish. I believe she is secular.
- Songwriter: Ellie Greenwich (co-writer)
Song: “Da Doo Run Run” (1963)
A 2009 tribute concert performance by Bruce Springsteen is a bit ragged, but he movingly pays tribute to Greenwich, who died just before the concert:
I know most people would consider that some other Greenwich songs, like “River Deep, Mountain High,” are better crafted love songs. But I thought this song captured the energy of youth (it was written when Greenwich was quite young). Greenwich was the daughter of a Jewish mother and a father who is not Jewish. She was raised Jewish.
- Songwriter: Oscar Hammerstein II (co-writer; lyricist). (Music by Richard Rodgers, who was Jewish.)
Song: “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” (from the Broadway musical South Pacific, 1949)
Hammerstein, the son of a Jewish father and an Episcopal mother, was raised in his mother’s faith. He was secular as an adult. Some of his direct descendants are Jewish, courtesy of his son’s marriage to a Jewish woman.
- Songwriter: Adam Levine
Song: “This Love” (2002; released as single in 2004)
Performed by Levine and his band, Maroon 5. Levine, who is secular, is the son of a Jewish father. His mother is of interfaith background. Adam’s maternal grandmother was Protestant.
- Songwriter: John La Touche (co-writer, lyricist)
Song: “Taking a Chance on Love” (from the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, 1940)
Performed by the Benny Goodman orchestra and sung by Helen Forrest; both Goodman and Forrest were Jewish. LaTouche was born and raised in Virginia, the son of a father of Irish and French Protestant descent and a Jewish mother. His parents divorced when he was quite young and his mother, one biographer writes, eked out a living as a seamstress, raising him and his younger brother in “genteel poverty.” He was secular and openly gay for the period in which he lived (1914-56). I add all this detail because the linked biography doesn’t mention his Jewish background (likewise, Carlton’s interfaith background is not in the linked bio above). Ted Fetter, a fairly obscure songwriter, also contributed lyrics to this song. He may have been Jewish. The music was by Vernon Duke, who was born Vladimir Dukelsky in Russia to a noble family that was not Jewish. I was a bit amused when a recent scholarly history of Jewish songwriters said that Duke was Jewish, but completely missed the fact that LaTouche was Jewish (or half Jewish). The author obviously assumed that someone born in Russia with the last name “Dukelsky” had to be Jewish, while someone from Richmond, Virginia, with a French last name, wasn’t.
- Songwriter: Laura Nyro
Song: “Wedding Bell Blues” (1966) By the singing group The Fifth Dimension, which had a monster hit record with the song when they covered it in 1969.
It was always my understanding that Nyro, born Laura Nigro, was the (secular) daughter of an Italian Catholic father and a Jewish mother. The linked bio says her father’s mother was also Jewish, but the supporting source for that information is defunct. I’ll check and see if this is correct as time and resources allow.
- Songwriter: Carly Simon
Song: “Anticipation” (1971)
Although the song was overplayed on the radio, and as a theme song for a Heinz ketchup commercial, it’s still a great song. The line “Stay right here because these are the good old days,” has always stuck with me. Simon, who was raised secular, is the daughter of a Jewish father (Richard Simon, co-founder of Simon and Schuster) and a mother of German and Spanish Catholic background.
- Songwriter: David Yazbek (words and lyrics)
Song: “What Was a Woman to Do?” (from the Broadway musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 2005)
Yazbek is the son of a Lebanese Christian father and a Jewish mother. My sense is that he primarily identifies as Jewish, but isn’t religious.
The Back Nine: Love Songs by Jewish Songwriters, Performed by Singers Who Are Not Jewish
Again, in alphabetical order, based on the last name of the songwriter:
- Songwriter: Harold Arlen (music); Ted Koehler (Lyrics)
Song: Stormy Weather (1933)
Performed by Lena Horne; scene from the 1943 movie Stormy Weather. The son of a Jewish cantor, Arlen was an incredible talent whose works include the music for The Wizard of Oz. Koehler is a hard figure to run-down. He retired young from songwriting. I did a lot of checking, and I think he was Jewish, but I couldn’t say this with total certainty.
African-American singer Horne (who wasn’t Jewish) and her granddaughter, screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married), were the subjects of a long profile on this site. As it says, Horne’s second husband, Lenny Hayton, was Jewish. Moreover, Horne’s daughter with her first husband, Gail Buckley, was formerly married to famous Jewish film director Sidney Lumet.
- Songwriter: Leonard Bernstein (music); and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
Song: “Tonight” (from the Broadway musical West Side Story, 1956)
From the 1960 motion picture production of West Side Story; performed by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood (neither are Jewish). Wood’s vocal was dubbed-in by Marni Nixon, who also is not Jewish. Bernstein, who is deceased, was Jewish. Sondheim, still very much alive, is also Jewish.
- Songwriter: Leonard Cohen
Song: “Chelsea Hotel #2” (1974)
Cohen is, of course, a famous Canadian Jewish singer, songwriter and poet. Wainwright, who isn’t Jewish, does, in my opinion, a better job than Cohen on Cohen’s own song. Wainwright has known Cohen since Wainwright was a child. Cohen admitted in a 2006 documentary about his life that he “slipped-up” while speaking with a reporter years ago. He candidly told this reporter that “Chelsea Hotel” was about a fairly brief romantic/sexual relationship he had in the ‘60s with the late singer Janis Joplin (who was not Jewish). Cohen said in the documentary that his identification of Joplin as his lover was “ungentlemanly.” Still, the lyrics make more sense when you know the subjects of the song, knowing that Joplin always thought of herself as “not pretty.” Others might have picked Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah.” It is a love song of sorts, but it’s not about a real-life interfaith romance. So, I went with “Chelsea.”
- Songwriter: Ervin Drake (lyrics)
Song: “Good Morning, Heartache” (1946)
Performance by Billie Holiday. Drake, a (Jewish) friend of this writer, is now 91 and is still sharp as a tack. The back story of this song is covered in the linked Wall Street Journal article. In short, there’s a very happy ending. Edith, the (Jewish) Broadway showgirl who broke Drake’s heart and inspired this song, has been Drake’s wife for the past 35 years. They re-united in 1975, 30 years after the song was written.
- Songwriter: Bob Dylan
Song: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (1967)
Performance by Joan Baez, from the 1968 album “Any Day Now,” a Dylan cover album. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere stands out for its jaunty, upbeat, country music feel. No surprise that a number of country music artists have covered it, too. Baez, a Quaker, and a legendary folksinger, formed one-half of a legendary romantic couple when she and Dylan, who is Jewish and was born Robert Zimmerman, were the “King and Queen” of folk music from about 1962 until 1965.Relations between them immediately after their break-up were a bit rough, but for the most part they have remained quite friendly. They started touring again with each other in 1975. In 2009, Dylan was very sweet and complimentary when he recalled his relationship with Baez for a PBS biography of Baez. Baez was likewise nice when she talked to Martin Scorsese about Dylan for his (2005) film on Dylan.Dylan, as most people know, was the subject of Baez’s hit 1975 song, “Diamonds and Rust.” Best line in that song: “Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.” Baez, who wrote the song, was referencing a moment in their romance when things were going so well that death would have been a reasonable way to preserve the perfection of the moment.
- Songwriters: George Gershwin (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics)
Song: “‘S Wonderful” (from the Broadway musical Funny Face, 1927)
A charming scene from the 1957 film musical Funny Face, performed by co-stars Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Just a lovely tune; done by lovely performers. The Gershwin brothers were Jewish. Hepburn was not Jewish. Astaire’s paternal grandparents converted to Catholicism from Judaism in Europe. Astaire’s mother was not Jewish; he was a practicing Episcopalian.
- Songwriters: John Kander (music and lyrics) and Fred Ebb (lyrics)
Song: “Cell Block Tango” (from the Broadway musical Chicago, 1957)
From the 2002 musical film version of Chicago. Kander, who is still alive, is a secular Jew, as was his late partner, Ebb. There are virtually no traditional love songs in their famous musicals. “Cell Block Tango,” perhaps the most memorable number in Chicago, features a group of woman imprisoned for allegedly killing their respective rat boyfriends or husbands, all of whom “had it coming.” It’s a song about love going “really wrong.”2002 co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones really shows her prodigious dancing and singing talents in this number.Zeta-Jones, who is of Welsh/Greek background, and is a practicing Catholic, is married to interfaith actor Michael Douglas, the son of Jewish actor Kirk Douglas.
- Songwriters: Jerome Kern (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics)
Song: “The Way You Look Tonight” (introduced in the 1936 motion picture Swing Time, starring Astaire and Ginger Rogers)
Covered by Rod Stewart, who isn’t Jewish. Kern and Fields, both Jewish, are at the pinnacle of all American songwriters of the “Great American Songbook Era” (c.1920-1965). Kern was critical to the invention of the modern musical (Showboat). Fields was the greatest female songwriter of this era and one of the greatest lyricists of all time.
- Songwriters: Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics)
Song: “My Funny Valentine”
Performed by Frank Sinatra, who was of Italian Catholic background. It’s appropriate to end on this song, which is as close as we have to an “official” Valentine’s Day song. Both Rodgers and Hart were Jewish. Hart was at the top of his game with his lyrics, and Rodgers’ melody is quite poignant. The most famous verse goes:
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak, are you smart?
But don’t you change one hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine, stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day