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“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,”

For the past ten years on Yom Hashoah I make sure to tune in to the March of the Living livestream from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the movers of technology never cease to amaze me.


This year the event featured a beautiful tribute to the iconic song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and its profound Jewish origins. Sung by Judy Garland in the opening scene of “The Wizard of Oz,” became one of the greatest and most beloved musical standards of all time. In 2001, it was voted the number one song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).


The song is often synonymous with the Jewish experience of WWII. Written in 1939 with a strong set of lyrics about escaping beyond the rainbow to a land “where the clouds are far behind,” the song’s appeal continues to this day and has captured the hearts of many people along the way.


Just look at Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s fabled rendition on the tenor ukulele, which currently has over one billion views on YouTube. The Austrian-born American composer Walter Aptowitzer was so enraptured by the song’s beauty that he took on Harold Arlen’s surname, becoming Walter “Arlen” upon arrival into the U.S.



Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg

Crafted in 1939 by Harold Arlen, the son of Lithuanian-Jewish refugees, and Yip Harburg, born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, this timeless melody and its poignant lyrics carry within them the echoes of a people yearning for hope amidst the darkness of Nazi rule in Europe. The composition of "Over the Rainbow" wasn't just about creating a hit tune; it was an expression of a deeply rooted Jewish heritage, a reflection of the dreams of millions ensnared in Hitler's Europe.


Arlen's upbringing, steeped in the traditions of his father, Samuel, a respected cantor at the Pine Street Synagogue in Buffalo, NY, imbued him with a profound sense of melody. His father's ability to improvise melodies to any text left an indelible mark on young Harold, shaping his musical sensibilities and providing the foundation for his future compositions. Arlen's exposure to jazz and gospel music in his working-class Jewish neighbourhood, combined with his later experiences at the Cotton Club in New York City, where he honed his craft and blended African American blues with Eastern European Jewish musical traditions, further enriched his musical palette.


Harburg, on the other hand, was born Isidore Hochberg, the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrant Orthodox Jews. His childhood, marked by the vibrancy of Yiddish theater, instilled in him a love for storytelling and performance. Despite his parents' concerns about performing on Shabbat and holidays, Harburg's passion for the stage persisted. His journey led him through various jobs, including stints at a small pickle factory and as a journalist in South America, before he eventually found his calling as a lyricist, turning to songwriting as a last resort after the 1929 market crash.


Together, Arlen and Harburg embarked on a creative journey that would culminate in the creation of "Over the Rainbow." The song's haunting melody and evocative lyrics spoke to a universal longing for a better world, resonating deeply with audiences far beyond its initial conception. Yet, its Jewish roots added layers of meaning that transcended the confines of a mere Hollywood soundtrack.


Ironically, “Over the Rainbow” was almost cut from the film, and there are various explanations offered for the near loss of this all-time classic. Some film critics maintain that during test screenings and final editing in the summer of 1939, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted the song cut because it was too sad. Others claim that a number of MGM executives objected to the song because they thought Garland’s sudden burst into song in a farmyard surrounded by farm animals was patently absurd; others suggest that the song was too sophisticated for children, the film’s target audience; and still others argue that execs wanted to cut the song because it slowed the pace of the film and did not materially advance the narrative.


Finally, producer Mervyn LeRoy and assistant producer Arthur Freed, who were passionate supporters of the song, threatened to resign if it was not included, and Mayer decided to “let the boys have the damn song.” However, a reprise of “Over the Rainbow,” which Dorothy was to sing as she sat trapped in the witch’s castle awaiting death as the hourglass sand was running out, was cut from the film. (The reprise soundtrack still exists.)


The official opening of the Wizard of Oz was on August 25, 1939, less than a week before Germany invaded Poland and launched WWII. Harburg always spoke of his belief that notwithstanding millennia of antisemitism, Jews had always fought and won their battle for survival and would continue to do so.


In Jewish tradition, a rainbow signifies divine revelation. In Ezekiel 1:28, the prophet describes a vision in which he had seen the divine presence “like a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, with a corona around it; this was how the glory of G‑d appeared . . .” In Berachot 59a, the Talmud cites R. Yehoshua ben Levi, who taught that when seeing a rainbow, a Jew should prostrate himself before G-d. (During his lifetime, no rainbow ever appeared.) The Zohar at Vol. 1, 72:2 teaches that an intensely bright and colourful rainbow will appear as a harbinger of the commencement of the long-awaited Messianic era. Thus, “over the rainbow” is a perfect metaphor for both Dorothy’s desire for a better world and Jewish yearning for their perfect post-Messianic world of redemption.


In light of concentration camp crematoria, about which Harburg could not have known, his phrase “away above the chimney tops” is chilling and eerie.


Today, on Yom Hashoah let us remember the resilience of the Jewish spirit, undaunted by the darkness of history. Let us honour the memory of those lost in the Holocaust by striving to build a world guided by justice, compassion, and hope. A world “somewhere over the rainbow”, a world filled with peace.


Source: Wikipedia, Saul Jay Singer, Jewish Press, Lior Zaltzman, Kveller.com, savethemusic.com, Jessica Abelsohn, Austraila Jewish News.

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