At the 2014 Oscars, they celebrated the 75th anniversary of the release of the “Wizard of Oz” by having Pink sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, with highlights from the film in the background. But what few people realized, while listening to that incredible performer singing that unforgettable song is that the music is deeply embedded in the Jewish experience.
It is no accident, for example, that the greatest Christmas songs of all time were written by Jews. For example, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by Johnny Marks and “White Christmas” was penned by a Jewish liturgical singer’s (cantor) son, Irving Berlin.
But perhaps the most poignant song emerging out of the mass exodus from Europe was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The lyrics were written by Yip Harburg.
He was the youngest of four children born to Russian Jewish immigrants. His real name was Isidore Hochberg and he grew up in a Yiddish speaking, Orthodox Jewish home in New York. The music was written by Harold Arlen, a cantor’s son. His real name was Hyman Arluck and his parents were from Lithuania. Together, Hochberg and Arluck wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which was voted the 20th century’s number one song by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
In writing it, the two men reached deep into their immigrant Jewish consciousness - framed by the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust about to happen - and wrote an unforgettable melody set to near prophetic words. Read the lyrics in their Jewish context and suddenly the words are no longer about wizards and Oz, but about Jewish survival:
Somewhere over the rainbow Way up high, There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow Skies are blue, And the dreams that you dare to dream Really do come true. Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far Behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops Away above the chimney tops that’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow Bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow. Why then, oh why can’t I? If happy little bluebirds fly Beyond the rainbow Why, oh why can’t I?
The Jews of Europe could not fly. They could not escape beyond the rainbow. Harburg was almost prescient when he talked about wanting to fly like a bluebird away from the “chimney tops”. In the post-Auschwitz era, chimney tops have taken on a whole different meaning than the one they had at the beginning of 1939.
Pink’s mom is Judith Kugel. She’s Jewish of Lithuanian background. As Pink was belting the Harburg/Arlen song from the stage at the Academy Awards, I wasn’t thinking about the movie. I was thinking about Europe’s lost Jews and the immigrants to America.
I was then struck by the irony that for two thousand years the land that the Jews heard of “once in a lullaby” was not America, but Israel. The remarkable thing would be that less than ten years after “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was first published, the exile was over and the State of Israel was reborn. Perhaps the “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”