For thirty-five years, Garrison Keillor has brought listeners into the village of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, the “town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve.” Home to a flock of colorful Lutherans and Catholics, it has served as a “fabricated community” for millions of public radio listeners. An idealized setting for Keillor’s storytelling, it has, until recently, been innocent of overt prejudice.
Last Wednesday, Keillor ruined all that in an anti-Semitic column, “Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone.” Telling his readers, “if you’re not in the club, then buzz off,” he lashed out at a staple of American popular culture. Criticizing “all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year,” he asks, “Did one of our guys write ‘Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah’? No, we didn’t.”
Reactions to the column have been overwhelmingly negative. Writing in the Tablet, Marissa Brostoff recounted Keillor’s “mildly xenophobic rant,” dubbing him the “self-appointed cultural representative of regular old Americans.” Telling Keillor to “go away,” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic wrote, “I was pretty sure I didn’t enjoy listening to Garrison Keillor even before I read what he had to say about Christmas music.” Calling it a “bigoted screed against those who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus,” Talking Points Memo’s M.J. Rosenberg said Keillor’s column “creeped me out.”
So unlike the gentle tone of his Lake Wobegon monologues, Keillor’s column is actually a better fit for the Minnesota of the 1940s. Writing in the Nation, Carey McWilliams called Minneapolis “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.” Back in those days, Jewish Minnesotans were barred from many community organizations. Now Keillor wants to ban Jewish-American songs from holiday observances.
It’s sad Garrison Keillor had to lash out at songs like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Composed by a Russian Jewish immigrant, crooned by an Irish Catholic pop star, and consumed by millions of Protestants, it is “the best-selling record of all.” It embodies the diversity of the American experiment.