Don McLean sings about dreidels and Dinah Shore croons about a partridge in a pear tree on “ ’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah,” a holiday-swapping new album that looks at how the Jewish festival and Christmas have influenced each other across decades of American music.
Comprised of two CDs, one devoted to each holiday, the collection features a mix of the famous and obscure — descriptions that apply to both the songs and their performers. While listeners will likely get caught up in in the sounds of Mel Torme, Woody Guthrie and the Ramones, they also get a musical lesson about religious culture in the US, which is ultimately what the album’s about.
“As soon as Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, the competitive campaign to beef up Hanukkah . . . went into high gear,” report the album’s liner notes.
As the notes suggest, relations between the winter holidays have often been simultaneously conflicted and symbiotic, with Jews responding to their marginal status by elevating a relatively minor holiday as an alternative to Christmas, and at the same time providing much of the music enjoyed by Christians.
Are the Hanukkah songs the Jewish songs, or are the Christmas songs more Jewish?
Talented Jewish songwriters “had their musical cake and ate it too,” the liner notes continue. Bonnie Weiss, an expert on the Great American Songbook, says that half the Christmas standards from the 1940s and ’50s — including timeless hits such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silver Bells” — were penned by Jews.
Jews have consistently used music to negotiate their place in American society, says David Katznelson, one of four founding members of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, the New York-based group that assembled the album.
A veteran music industry professional who also works for San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation, Katznelson told The Times of Israel that the idea for the compilation resulted from the society’s work on other projects, including a 1950s-themed pop-up store that sold Jewish music last Hanukkah.
The success of that project, which drew more than 25,000 visitors, inspired Katznelson and his colleagues — music historian Roger Bennett, media executive Courtney Holt and journalism professor Josh Kun — to search their personal collections for the record that ultimately became “ ’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah.” (Katznelson says his own musical library contains 12,000 vinyl albums, CDs, tapes and cylinders.)
While the resulting album features numbers by household names — Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis Jr. among them — the collection draws additional spirit and resonance from lesser-known performers.
On the Hanukkah disc, listeners hear Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt sing the Hanukkah classic “Yevonim” (“The Greeks”) on a scratchy 1916 recording, as well as a 1938 version of “Rock of Ages” by Cantor David Putterman. Comedy and children’s recordings from the mid-20th century also elicit a nostalgic smile, thanks to numbers including Gladys Gewirtz’s “A Chanukah Quiz” and “Maccabee March” by Shirley Cohen. The CD is filled out by more contemporary tunes, including from the Klezmatics, Debbie Friedman and Flory Jagoda, who sings in Ladino.
But the most striking tracks may come from non-Jewish musicians. Guthrie — whose mother-in-law was the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt — sings his “Hanukkah Dance” from the 1940s, while Ella Jenkins, the African-American “first lady of children’s folk,” performs a playful rendition of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
McLean, meanwhile, offers a loopy 1972 “Dreidel” that has far more to do with the confusion of modern life than with the Jewish holiday — a number that’s juxtaposed with a live, zydeco-influenced rendition of the same song by Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson.
By contrast, the Christmas CD is more homogenous in one key way: All the singers are Jewish. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating selection that ranges from mid-century classics like Mel Tormé “The Christmas Song” (which he wrote) to Shore’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and Davis Jr.’s “It’s Christmas All Over the World.”
According to Weiss, Jewish composers and lyricists stayed away from religious themes when writing about Christmas, typically restricting themselves to snow, sleigh bells and Santa. The pattern was started and perhaps most perfectly demonstrated by Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” sung here by record executive and performer Mitch Miller, the man who convinced Johnny Mathis to sing “Kol Nidrei.”
Jewish musicians’ willingness to write about Christmas proved both artistically and commercially canny, since professional breakthroughs were less likely to happen via songs about Hanukkah. (Eventually, of course, there were notable exceptions.)
That cultural openness returns on some of the album’s more recent numbers, including Reed’s “Holiday I.D.,” the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight)” and Bob Dylan’s “Little Drummer Boy.” (Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond would also have made the cut, had licensing issues not gotten in the way.)
Half the Christmas standards of the 1940s and ’50s were penned by Jews
Christianity’s cultural dominance can also be seen in the ethnic diversity of the CD, represented by Larry Harlow’s “El Dia de la Navidad” and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ version of “Jingle Bells.”
These sorts of cultural exchanges echo previous compilations by the Idelsohn Society, which promotes the history of Jewish music through museum exhibitions, concerts and a digital archive currently under construction. Earlier releases include “Black Sabbath,” about “the secret musical history” of Jewish/African-American relations.
“’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” has already proven a hit among those with an interest in Jews finding their place within the broader cultural landscape.
“No country has interwoven elements of Jewish culture into its popular culture as thoroughly as America, especially in music, and this album is a testament to that,” says David Sax, who writes about how Jewish food has influenced American cuisine.
Indeed, after hearing the album, listeners are left to wonder: Are the Hanukkah songs the Jewish songs, or are the Christmas songs more Jewish?
It’s okay not to be sure, Katznelson says: “It’s really about asking questions more than getting answers.”