Are you tired of the same old’, same old’ when it comes to Christmas cuts and Hanukkah hits? The folks at the nonprofit Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation have gathered together an eclectic set of songs in their newest release the double disc ‘Twas The Night Before Hanukkah (The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights).
This 34-track cross-cultural compilation comes complete with an interesting paperback that explores the relationship between the two holidays (Christmas and Hanukkah) and their influence on the 20th century as well as “Christmas music by Jews”. It’s educational, interesting and often odd.
The first disc focuses on Hanukkah. While your Christmas chronicler did, indeed, do a “Holiday Hits” piece on Hanukkah it required a bit of homework. Yes, it’s true your randy writer doesn’t discriminate and dates up and down the rainbow regardless of age, race, creed or color.
Your writin’ rapscallion has indeed dated a few “Jewish Julies” if you will and did indeed learn something. Unfortunately, the relationships were generally always more torrid than Torah, if ya know what I mean! Your seasonal scribe had no idea about most of these trolled up, tuneful treasures.
Disc 1 is aptly titled “Happy Hanukkah”. This CD includes interesting traditional tracks while also including humorous Hasidic hits. The album opener is the apt “Hanukah” by Gerald Marks.
The second selection is “Hanukkah Dance” by legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie who was introduced to the faith by an in-law. Also included here are stirring renditions of “Yevonim” by well-known Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and the popular “Rock of Ages” by Cantor David Putterman. It’s followed by the “kleverly-titled” “Klezzified” by the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
For new Jews there is the classic quiz “A Chanukah Quiz” by Gladys Gewirtz. Ella Jenkins does her rendition of the ever popular “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”. “Svivon Sov Sov Sov” by the Temple B’Nai Abraham of Essex County Children’s Choir for those into choral and/or children’s choirs follows. The titular track, “’Twas The Night Before Hanukkah” by Stanley Adams and Sid Wayne provides a different take on the popular practice of parodying the well-worn Christmas poem.
Track ten offers “Ocho Kandelikas” by Flory Jagoda. Which precedes Mickey Katz’ cut “Grandma’s Dreidel”. One of the surprising highlights is “The Latke Song” by Debbie Friedman who is not only singing about holiday foods but seems to truly be having fun at the same time.
“Hanukah Tree” by The Klezmatics and Shirley Cohen’s “Maccabee March” make an appearance as well. “Mo’Oz Tsur”, translated from Hebrew as “Rock of Ages”, by Sol Zim will also be memorable for those who celebrate the holiday. “Dreidel”, strangely enough, was once a single by Don McLean the singer-songwriter behind such selections as “Vincent” and “American Pie”.
(Some critics couldn’t see a connection noting that McLean only used the word dreidel because it rhymes with cradle.) Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson contribute the closing cut. It’s a contemporary, rustic, blues-rock jam cover of “Dreidel” that segues into the Zydeco classic “Iko Iko.”
Disc 2 is named “Merry Christmas”. The lead-in, Lou Reed’s “Holiday I.D.” is short and sweet and yet offers an apropos albeit uncommitted holiday wish perfect for our overly-PC times. The second selection is the killer cut “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight)” by The Ramones.
Singer-songwriter Mel Torme contributes a perennial favorite “The Christmas Song”. This is one of the holiday hits that sidesteps the celebration’s religious roots and focuses on the secular aspects of the season. A favorite follows as Bob Dylan breaks into “Little Drummer Boy”. This is perhaps the least surprising Christmas carol covered by a Jew as Dylan had moments of transition and of course every guitarist need a drummer, boy.
Next up the Jewish folk singer and actor, Theodore Bikel, croons the Christmas carol “Sweetest Dreams Be Thine”. His version of this oldie includes a few Hebrew lyrics of course. Cantor Richard Tucker also goes on record with his tenor tuned “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
One critically-acclaimed cut is “The Problem”. This one perfectly projects the paradox also expressed elsewhere on this album exploring the mixed feelings of some Jews at Christmastime. It’s by Ray Brenner and Barry E. Blitzer and set to the tune of “Jingle Bells”.
Also on this unlikely hit list are “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as done by Dinah Shore, Benny Goodman doing “Santa Came in the Spring” and the interesting albeit confusing “El Dia de la Navidad” by the very non-Hispanic and more Hasidic Larry Harlow. The legendary Danny Kaye covers “O Come All Ye Faithful” and Eddie Cantor continues with “The Only Thing I Want For Christmas” which oddly expresses a better attitude towards the holiday than many Christians do.
The late convert Sammy Davis Jr. jogs out “It’s Christmas All Over The World” as well. Also included is The Ames Brothers belting out “I Got a Cold for Christmas” although your winter wordsmith personally prefers the version recorded by The Three Stooges. Eddie Fisher follows with the now classic “Christmas Eve in My Hometown”. Another (ahem) instrumental insert is “Jingle Bells” as done by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
The closing cut is yet another now perennial piece, “White Christmas”, is also included. This was composed by Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin and is yet another number that takes the Christ out of Christmas in a musical white, winter wonderland. This version is performed by Mitch Miller. Truly, Twas The Night Before Hanukkah (The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights) is an intriguing and oft’times outright entertaining album overall perfect for holiday play.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.