Music Chat: Twas the Night Before Hanukkah

— by Hannah Lee

Maybe it’s because I was not born of the faith — I’ve joked that I’m from beyond the Pale — but I’ve always loved Christmas music. As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t experience the December Dilemma, because I know which is my holiday. This also means that I can enjoy the lovely music, without any psychological conflicts, any envy. When we first visited Scotland, I bought a CD of Christmas music on the bag pipe — how’s that for combining my interests! As soon as I learned about the new offering by the Idelson Society for Musical Preservation, I had to get Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle between Christmas and the Festival of Lights.

More after the jump.
The Idelson Society for Musical Preservation is composed of a team of professionals from the music industry and academia who “passionately believe Jewish history is best told by the music we have loved and lost.” They have done so in several ways: by releasing lost Jewish classic albums and the stories about them; building a digitally-based archive of music and the artists who created them; curating museum exhibits; and staging concerts that bring our elderly performers back onstage to be appreciated by younger audiences.

Their 2010 release of Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations was a delight for my ears: Johnny Mathis on “Kol Nidre” (1958); Nina Simone on “Eretz Zavat Chalav v’Devash” (1963); and the Temptations on a Fiddler on the Roof melody (1969).  I loved most of the selections by other artists on the album, such as Aretha Franklin; and Lena Horne, but I was not enchanted by Billie Holiday’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Momme” (1956) and I choose to skip over the first track when I play the CD.

Their 2012 release, Twas the Night Before Hanukkah comes with an essay by Jenna Weissman Joselit, Professor and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at George Washington University, in which she chronicles how the minor holiday of Hanukkah became commerce-driven. A little-known recording by Woody Guthrie (“Hanukkah Dance”) keeps company with selections by traditional Jewish performers such as Cantors Yossele Rosenbaum (“Yevonim”) and David Putterman (“Rock of Ages”) as well as younger modern artists such as Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller, and Luther Dickinson. The latter are from separate ensembles —  Sway Machinery and Balkan Beat Box, North Mississippi All-Stars and The Black Crowes and The Howlin’ Rain and Comets on Fire — who come together and blended “the Jewish soul of Lockwood, the Southern gris-gris (voodoo talisman) of Dickinson and the New Weird American sounds of Miller” to create a version of “Dreidel, Dreidel” that is both Jewish and American.

My interest laid with the second CD on the album, which was introduced by music journalist and critic, Greil Marcus. It is the far better one musically — for composition, vocalization, and orchestration. This CD included Christmas songs that have been recorded by Jewish performers, such as Bob Dylan, Joey Ramone (born Jeffry Ross Hyman in Forest Hills, Queens), and Sammy Davis, Jr. Z (who converted to Judaism in the late 1950s). Alas, selections from Barbra Streisand’s A Christmas Album, released in 1967, does not appear on this album.

The introduction from the Idelson Society begins with a quote from the writer Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock:

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.”  The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both!  Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow…He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely!  Nicely!  So nicely the goyim don’t even know what hit ’em.  They love it. Everybody loves it…

Roth’s perspective is a novel one, but it’s not kind. I love Christmas music —  from Irving Berlin’s to Felix  Mendelssohn’s (the grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn) — because it is beautiful music that soars and lifts the spirit.  I believe that God works through music and maybe peace on Earth could come when we all enjoy creations made in his honor.