Ancient Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology and Modern Apocalyptic Songs
Music makes you feel a feeling.
But a song makes you feel thoughts.”
(Attributed to E.Y. Harburg)
Two songs have shaped the modern era in ways reminiscent of apocalyptic hopes. They form out of the human desire for a better place, a better time, as the Depression, the War, and the Shoah, as well as the Cold War cast a pall over Western Culture. The early Jews, not only those who composed the Books of Enoch, the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the History of the Rechabites (each is translated in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha), dreamed of a place where there are no enemies, no conquering armies, and no cold or icy earth. Food with drink is abundant beneath a warming sun.
First, the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” was written by Academy-winning composer, conductor, arranger, and songwriter Leigh Adrian Harline (1907-1969) and Academy-winner Ned Washington (1901-1976) for Walt Disney's 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio. Cliff Edwards sang the original version and the character on the screen was Jiminy Cricket.
Second, and far more importantly, the song “Over the Rainbow” was written by E. Y. Harburg (1896-1981) with Harold Arlen (1905-1986) in 1938. It was featured in the 1939 movie,The Wizard of Oz, and first sung during filming by the incomparable Judy Garland in 1938.
“Over the Rainbow” is first on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts and ranked the greatest movie song of all time on the list of The American Film Institute’s "100 Years...100 Songs.” It was adopted by American troops in Europe in World War II as a symbol of the United States. Garland herself performed the song for the troops as part of a 1943 performance.
“Over the Rainbow” is one of the enduring expressions of hope in our culture since WWII, and evokes meaning for those who find life meaningless and hopeless. Recall the lyrics:
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
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?
Most importantly for us, the stirring lyrics of this song were composed by two Jews. Harburg was Edgar Yipsel. He was nicknamed “Yip,” (most likely, as he himself stated, the Yiddish word for “squirrel” [yipsi]) and was Jewish and born Isidore Hochberg, Yiddish: He was born in the Lower East Side of New York City, in the Jewish ghetto of Manhattan. His parents were Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews. They immigrated to the USA from Russia.
Harold Arlen was also Jewish. He was born in Buffalo, New York and named Hymen Arluck. His father was a synagogue cantor. By about seven he began singing in his family’s synagogue. At 15 years of age he fled high school for New York City. His career included successes as a pianist, singer, and prolific composer. After a short time with a dance band, he wrote his first hit: “Get Happy.” Arlen composed more important and influential songs than any other composer in American history.
These two men shaped American culture with their popular songs. Sometimes with the assistance of others, Harburg composed the following selections:
April in Paris
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead
How are Things in Glocca Morra?
Hurry Sundown [made popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary]
If I Only Had a Brain
If I Were King of the Forest
It’s Only a Paper Moon
Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block
The Merry Old Land of Oz
Old Devil Moon
We’re Off to See the Wizard
Over the Rainbow" (Academy Award, 1939)
Among more than 400 songs, often with the contributions of others (notably, Jonny Mercer, Ted Koehler, Leo Robin, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Truman Capote, and Harburg), Arlen gave us these that stir our hearts:
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
I Love a Parade
I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues
I've Got the World on a String
It's Only a Paper Moon
Happy as the Day Is Long
Let's Fall in Love
In the Shade of the New Apple Tree
We're Off to See the Wizard
Ding-Dong the Witch Is Dead
If I Only Had a Brain
Blues in the Night
That Old Black Magic
Hit the Road to Dreamland
One for My Baby
When the Boys Come Home
Out of This World
June Comes Around Every Year
Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home
Come Rain or Come Shine
Ridin' on the Moon
It Was Written in the Stars
It's a New World
Here's What I'm Here For
Take it Slow, Joe
Over the Rainbow (Academy Award, 1939).
Notice how many of these well-known songs were immortalized by singers such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Lena Horne, and other gifted and memorable singers. Observe how they embody the hope of another place where our dreams are realized. These songs were selected because they mirror the apocalyptic hope that shapes our culture and our lives.
Harburg’s son and biographer, Ernie Harburg, offered this insight:
Yip also wrote all the dialogue in that time and the setup to the songs and he also wrote the part where they give out the heart, the brains and the nerve, because he was the final script editor. And he — there were eleven screenwriters on that — and he pulled the whole thing together, wrote his own lines and gave the thing a coherence and unity which made it a work of art. But he doesn’t get credit for that. He gets lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, you see. But nevertheless, he put his influence on the thing.”
Yip referred to “our tribe;” it included Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Howard Dietz. They met weekly at George Gershwin's home. [“Democracy Now article 25, November, 2004,” Democracynow.org. Retrieved July 31, 2012].
It is certain that the song “Over the Rainbow” was intended to have political significance. Harburg expressed hope that we Americans would recover from the Great Depression. Dorothy’s Kansas lament embodied the horrors of the Dust Bowl. This ecological disaster and human tragedy was caused by overworking the open plains in and near Kansas. Some of the farmers fled the strong winds and tornadoes of Kansas for life in sunny California where the song was taking shape.
1939 is a major year for Europe. Kristallnacht had occurred in Europe on 9-10 November 1938. The Concentration Camps and Death Camps were in operation or beginning. The chimneys of Dachau (March 1933 to April 1945) for cremation were not installed until 1940 and Auschwitz-Birkenau (April or May 1940 to January 1945) that is approximately 37 miles west of Krakow at Oswiecim, are too late to shape the minds who penned “Away above the chimney tops.” Yet, we should ask: “To what extent did immigrant Jewish consciousness define the words of “Over the Rainbow”? For us, the horrendous images of the Nazi crematoria are a catalyst for imagination of horrors and dreams as we hear “chimney tops.”
For Harburg and Arlen, memories of Kristallnacht could be in the air and obviously the long persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe were too vivid. No one should be so unperceptive to miss the fact that each of these gifted composers probably knew about the long tale of “the Wandering Jew,” and Jewish history that is filled with numerous creative ways to dispose of Jews, and “burning” on the ground or tied to a stake or hooked was no secret. The notorious “1190 massacre of York’s Jewish community” and the Inquisition Sanctum Officium (a wonderful euphemism) and Josephus’ descriptions of the fires in places like Jotapata, Gamla, Migdal, Jericho, and Qumran, and notably the burning of the Temple and Jerusalem included “cremations.” A capital from the Royal Stoa in the Jerusalem Temple shows burned flesh (maybe from priests). This mega song reveals a Jewish longing for somewhere “Over the Rainbow.”
Note how many songs listed above were jointly composed by two Jews. And how did ancient Jewish apocalyptic eschatology inform modern lyrics and hopes? As we answer this question let us not forget that for biblical thought and imagination “hope” is not uncertainty as in some modern cultures; it is something definite and real based on God’s promises found in his Word or Torah, the Bible.
Life after Auschwitz can never be the same as before it; and that is true in all lands and not only in the land of Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. We know that “chimney tops” have a meaning now that they may not have had in the minds of Jews who composed “Over the Rainbow.” One year after they composed the song, each of the composers would have imagined they were prescient when they used the word “chimney tops.” For us who remember the poignant, disturbing movie “Schindler’s List,” in 1993 or in a more recent rerun, something too horrible to explain appears evident as we remember the smoke billowing from the chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a fleshy-white substance filtering downward.
Our gnawing question about prescience in the mind of Harburg and Arlen may remain without any firm answer. We may never know. But, we should ask and ponder: Who are we? What has shaped our minds and hopes? To what extent are we humans thinkers with dreams developed out of early Jewish apocalyptic eschatology?
If we are to remain human, we must continue to hold on to biblical hope from a history that antedates ancient Rome. During the Roman period, the third name of a Roman citizen was his “cognomen.” The ringing words “Over the Rainbow” brings to mind a vision of what is beyond the high mountain; Harburg’s Yiddish cognomen means “High Mountain.”BACK TO HOMEPAGE