The Melody Makers: A new series on A&M


THERE is a small church in the Kent village of Tudeley. It dates from before the Norman Conquest but most of it was built in the 18th century. There is a square brick tower which in all honesty is not especially lovely.

However, enter the church and you are instantly stunned. Intense blue light streams through 12 stained glass windows, the work of the renowned artist Marc Chagall.

The largest one, the east window, was commissioned by Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid and his wife Rosemary as a memorial to their daughter Sarah, who died in 1963 in a sailing accident at the age of 21. At the time the family lived at the nearby Jacobean house Somerhill.

Initially Chagall needed persuading to take on the commission, but when he arrived to supervise the installation of the east window in 1967 and saw the church, he said: ‘It’s magnificent. I will do them all.’ The remaining 11 windows were made and installed over the next 15 years.

In commemorating the daughter of a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, Chagall was an inspired choice. He was a Russian Jew, but he often included Christ in his work, and spoke of him as ‘the radiant young man in whom young people delight’.

Since the windows were installed, the communion table has a new covering which combines Hebrew and English script. It was a community project with many from the parish and beyond making small parts which were stitched together.

I am not Jewish, but to be in All Saints Church, Tudeley, is to understand that what divides Jews and non-Jews is as nothing compared with what binds us together. We are all cut from the same cloth.

Not only that, but we share our culture. In fact it is not going too far to say that without the Jewish contribution, Western culture would be much less magnificent than it is. It is impossible to overstate how deeply interwoven we all are. In this distressing time of overt anti-Semitism, I hope readers will agree that this is a good moment to celebrate this marvellous Jewish portfolio.

Jews in Europe (and elsewhere) have been persecuted for countless centuries but in the 19th century anti-Semitism became more marked. With the advent of transatlantic liners making the journey to America easier, many Jews decided to leave their homes to settle there where there was little or no hostility. Between 1890 and 1924 more than 2million Jews arrived in the United States, mostly from Russia and Eastern Europe. They settled in and around New York City, and it is largely this population that gave rise to an astonishing flowering of creativity.

I am not going to pretend to understand why or how it happened but I imagine that although many of the immigrants lived in poverty, there must have been joy at feeling safe, and at being with others who had shared the same experiences. Many came from small or isolated communities and for the first time were mixing with large numbers of fellow Jews. There was also gratitude to America for taking them in, and a desire to repay its generosity. Irving Berlin, for example, rejected his lawyers’ advice to invest in tax shelters, insisting: ‘I want to pay taxes. I love this country.’

Although Jews comprise only about 2 per cent of the American population, their achievements are way out of proportion to their numbers. They have excelled in science, in literature, in economics, in art, in chess (29 of the 64 best chess players of all time are or were Jewish) and of course in humour. Perhaps the field of achievement with the highest profile is music, in particular the writing of popular songs and musicals for stage and screen. Between 1934 and 2018, Jewish composers and lyricists won 47 per cent of the Oscars for Best Original Song.

Of course there were many leading non-Jewish writers but it is telling that one of those, Cole Porter, had little success at first. In 1926 he was dining with Noel Coward, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart when he confided that he had finally figured out the secret to writing hits. ‘I’ll write Jewish tunes,’ he said.

So we are going to run a weekly series on the astonishing Jewish contribution to the last century of music, starting tomorrow. It is a vast subject and I can only skim the surface but I hope readers will enjoy the glimpse of the wonderful songs and tunes on offer. With such a wealth of material – for every song mentioned there are hundreds of others – I intended to restrict myself to writers with a Jewish mother and father, but that became too complicated so I am treating as Jewish anyone with one Jewish parent (even though Judaism follows matrilineal descent) and making it clear if that is the case. I have also included some material which was co-written by Jews and non-Jews, again making it clear.

Hanoe hobn! (Enjoy!)

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