Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg reflects on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the perspective of its Jewish composers, who published the Oscar-winning song on the eve of the Holocaust.
The 2014 Oscars celebrated the 75th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz” by having Pink sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a backdrop of highlights from the film. 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 that some of the greatest Christmas songs of all time, such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas,” were written by Jews. “Rudolph” was written by Johnny Marks, and “White Christmas” was penned by Irving Berlin, a cantor’s son.
But perhaps the most poignant song to emerge out of the mass exodus from Europe was “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. The lyrics were written by Yip Harburg, 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 song’s music was written by Harold Arlen, also 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 No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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, 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 because the Nazis had not yet created the crematoriums and gas chambers that they used during the Holocaust.
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 then was struck by the irony that for 2,000 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 10 years after “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was published, the exile was over, and the State of Israel was reborn. Perhaps the “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg is spiritual leader of of Congregation Beth-El in Edison and the author of many books, including “The Holocaust as Seen Through Film.” For more about the temple, visit http://congregationbethel.faithweb.com/. For more about Rosenberg, visit http://bernhardrosenberg.com/.