December always brings a torrent of Christmas-themed recordings by musical artists of all stripes. If you’re at all serious about longevity in a recording career, you record an album of holiday music — the sooner, the better.
No matter what the state of the recording industry, the American public seems to have a bottomless appetite for Christmas songs, regardless of the genre: classical, pop, jazz, country, rap — even death metal.
But while Christmas CDs proliferate, Chanukah-themed albums are seldom forthcoming, and they are hard to locate when they appear. This year offers a bumper crop of three — count ’em, three! — new Chanukah CD collections.
The most traditional comes from the London Jewish Male Choir. Not quite 100 years old as an institution, it sings a wide array of sacred music on “S’u Sh’orim” (Arc Music). The group is one of the world’s foremost Jewish choral ensembles and performs mostly a cappella. Israeli folk, liturgical pieces, Chasidic laments and Ladino songs are all fair game for the choir, whose ranks are open to non-Jews.
The sonorities are thick here, and the soul runs deep. David Hilton’s authoritative bass leads the freylich “Boch Rabeinu,” and Yossele Rosenblatt’s “V’hu Rachum” is a heart-clutching call to prayer by tenor Ben Camissar. “V’al Kulom” has Jason Blair’s tenor soaring over the ensemble, which rolls gently but powerfully. The Ladino numbers show that Jewish soul comes in different flavors, too. This is a great addition to a Chanukah music collection or a very good place to start one.
San Mateo standup comic Lauren Mayer offers something completely different with a sardonic menu of original songs on her self-produced “Latkes, Schmatkes!” It’s a novelty album, albeit one with an ax to grind. Mayer immediately goes for the jugular in “Nine Words”: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”
Her “The Jew-in-a-Gentile-World Blues” sums up what she’s after. Likewise, a hip-hop send-up, a country tune, and songs “The Chanuka Cha Cha” and “I Hate Holiday Music” all drive home the draft she feels in December.
But Mayer’s an equal opportunity complainer. On the title number she kvetches about splattered oil and concludes: “Why can’t we eat potato chips instead?” As a singer, she’d never be mistaken for Barbra Streisand, but she does manage to hit the notes.
The complex relationship of Jews and gentiles to their respective holiday music and that of the other faith is thoroughly explored in the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation’s two-CD collection, “ ’Twas The Night Before Hanukkah.” The complicated topic should be no surprise coming from this outfit, which brought us the “Black Sabbath” compilation, documenting black performers essaying Jewish music.
Taken as a whole, the collection is a long and multifaceted meditation on tradition versus assimilation. While non-Jews have had virtually no effect on the musical literature of the Festival of Lights, Jews have proven indispensable to Christmas music.
Ray Brenner and Barry Blitzer’s “The Problem” is a funny though incisive musical playlet about the dilemma of how to deal with the overwhelming influence of Christmas for Jews, and it encapsulates much of what the Idelsohn people wrestle with here. The fictional Reform rabbi of the “Hollywood Synagogue,” which comes complete with a health club and shvitz — “Tony Curtis reserved a locker for the High Holy Days!” — is, as Lenny Bruce would say, “so reformed he’s ashamed he’s Jewish.” Ironically, Brenner and Blitzer’s piece is modeled after the brilliant recordings of Stan Freberg, the gentile comic genius from Glendale.
The first disc has some of the more far-reaching musical Chanukah tributes. For tradition, Ukrainian-born Yossele Rosenblatt, with several octaves at his disposal, demonstrates why he was the world’s highest-paid cantor in the early 20th century through his rendition of “Yevonim.” Cantor David Putterman’s ensemble delivers a rousing and obligatory “Ma’oz Tzur” (Rock of Ages), while Tin Pan Alleyman Gerald Marks, who wrote Santa Claus ditties, weighs in with his solemn and historic “Hanukah.”
Children’s music maven Gladys Gewirtz leads a sing-a-long on “A Chanukah Quiz,” and Temple B’Nai Abraham of Essex County Children’s Choir sings “Svivon Sov Sov Sov” like the Vienna Boys Choir. These are all quite earnest expressions.
Then the Klezmatics and the Klezmer Conservatory Band give us the flavor of old Second Avenue in New York, or at least what they think it sounded like. Debbie Friedman, the Jewish Joan Baez, leads a crowd through her rousing “Latke Song” as her doppelgänger would have done on “We Shall Overcome.”
The curve balls commence when Dust Bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie sings his own sprightly “Hanukkah Dance” (his second wife was Jewish), black folk matriarch Ella Jenkins offers “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” and Don McLean cuts a folk-rock “Dreidel.” Eternal folkie Theodore Bikel sings a Christmas song in English and Hebrew — naturally.
A number of Jews sang Christmas fare just as sincerely. Pop idol Eddie Fisher sounds earnestly dreamy with “Christmas Eve in My Hometown.” And everybody’s favorite convert, Sammy Davis Jr., exchanges with kids who sound like the Von Trapp children for “It’s Christmas All Over the World.”
Mel Tormé epitomizes jazz cool on his own “Christmas Song,” while Dinah Shore’s squeaky-clean “Twelve Days of Christmas” could have been sung by June Cleaver. Concert singer and cantor Richard Tucker’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” holds its mud next to Pavarotti’s.
Then there’s the Velvet Underground’s smug Lou Reed wishing everyone, “Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah … or whatever it is that you do,” followed by a song by the Ramones (lead singer Joey Ramone was born Jeffrey Hyman). Latin bandleader and Santeria convert Larry Harlow (nicknamed “El Judio Maravilloso” — The Marvelous Jew) also renders a salsa Christmas number.
It’s only fitting that Bob Dylan, who’s played hide-and-seek with his Jewishness for decades, croaks “Little Drummer Boy.” Jeremiah Lockwood of the Sway Machinery mates “Dreidel” with the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian chant “Iko Iko.”
If it sounds quite scattered, you’re right: the collection is eclectic to a fare-thee-well. But it also reflects the multiplicity of the American experiment; this music couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It’s as American as Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Day.