CD Review: Various Artists – ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah (Idelsohn Society, 2012)
A musical battle between Hanukkah and Christmas is really no battle at all. As the popularity of recorded music grew through the twentieth century, so did the Christian-to-Jew population advantage. A 50:1 advantage in 1900 grew to a 150:1 advantage by 2000, and magnified by Western commercialization of Christmas, its celebrants produced an unparalleled abundance of popular holiday music. Hanukkah, in contrast, mostly made good with candles, dreidels, latkes and music that bore more resemblance to traditional Jewish melodies than the top of the pops. Sure, there’s the catchy “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” but it’s more of a nursery rhyme than a hit single, and Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” (covered by both Neil Diamond and the hardcore rockers Yidcore) was a heartfelt, but ultimately self-conscious response to the dearth of Hanukkah songs. Beck, They Might Be Giants and Ben Kweller, to name a few, have given it a shot, but don’t expect to be humming along to a Muzak™ version of Tom Lehrer’s “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica” any time soon.
Even with the LeeVees’ Hanukkah Rocks on the shelves, Hanukkah fights the musical battle with both arms tied behind its back. If Christmas is the Beatles, Hanukkah is at best a lounge band covering the Four Seasons (cf: The International Battle of the Century). The relentless repetition of Top 40 hits, on the radio and in stores, has made dozens of Christmas songs icons of the season. And in keeping with the secularization of Christmas as a U.S. celebration, many of the best-loved Christmas songs were written or sung by Jews. The Idelsohn Society’s two-disc set traces the transformation of Christmas from a religious holiday to a popular bonanza, and further emphasizes the second-banana position into which the relatively minor holiday of Hanukkah was pressed. The songs on disc two demonstrate how Christmas cut across cultural lines to become as much a secular seasonal feeling as a religious celebration. As the set’s liner notes point out, American Jews celebrated Christmas “not because it was Christian, but because it was American.”
At the same time, the designation of Christmas as a national holiday in 1870 set off a desire among some Jews for Hanukkah parity. And though Hanukkah songs were written and revived, none ever reached true popular acclaim. Disc one, “Happy Hanukkah,” includes historical odes, folk songs (including Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance”), traditional melodies, klezmer, cantorial standards, children’s songs, chorals and humor. The disc’s one hit is Don McLean’s “Dreidel,” which just missed the Top 20 in 1972, and is really only Hanukkah-themed in its title. Disc two is filled with popularly familiar artists (The Ramones, Bob Dylan, Benny Goodman, Sammy Davis Jr., Herb Alpert, Mel Torme), all of whom are Jewish. The song list features many perennials, including Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas,” which author Phillip Roth characterized as subversively turning “Christmas into a holiday about snow.”
The two discs and accompanying 36-page booklet are entertaining and thought-provoking. The story of Jewish assimilation into American society is perhaps nowhere more evident than the secularized national celebration of Christmas, and the failed (and perhaps misguided) attempt to bring Hanukkah to parity. Christmas iconography – Santa, reindeer, snow, trees, candy canes, decorations, lights and brightly wrapped presents – are generally more visible than Christian religious symbols, and the holiday’s musical hits, even when referencing historical places and people, have more often taken a general celebratory tone than one of liturgy or dogma. Jews may sing a Hanukkah song or two by the menorah, but the soundtrack to most holiday gatherings, office parties and shopping – for Jews and Gentiles alike – is filled with Christmas music.