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Tuning In #1: The Chrismukkah Edition

12/18/2022 11:52:16 AM


Michael Greenfield

Every year we get new Chanukah parody songs. Less frequently, we get new Chanukah comedy songs. And - rarer still - new, actual Chanukah songs. What's the difference, is there a difference, and what's the connection to Christmas?

Tuning In to Jewish Music #1

The Chrismukkah Edition

Chanukah: Dec 18-26

Since first arriving on these shores, Jews have been navigating being a part of America while also being apart from it. Mandy Patinkin's Yiddish God Bless America/Take Me Out to the Ball Game mashup is one of the many moments when the see-saw tips yet again. Irving Berlin, born Yisroel Beilin, ditched the Yiddish name for an English one and became one of America's most prolific and well-known song-writers. In 1918, he wrote "God Bless America" while serving in the Armed Forces but released it 20 years later as a peace song during the rise of fascism in '38. When Patinkin recorded it in Yiddish in 1998 for the Mamaloshen album, the cover art - Patinkin, looking like Tevye singing biddy-biddy-bum, in front of an American flag - is playing with the irony while also being proudly Jewish-American (rather than being an American Jew). Our unofficial national anthem was written by a Jewish immigrant with one foot in each of the two worlds.

A person with the hands up

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Part of the irony, of course, is that America's unofficial national anthem isn't Berlin's most famous song. That honor goes to White Christmas, which is just one of the many most-famous Christmas songs written by Jews. Rudolph, the story of an outcast teased about his prominent nose, wants nothing more than to be accepted for who he is (could there be a more fraught, Jewish Christmas song?). The song was written by Johnny Marks, the Jewish songwriter who also wrote "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", "A Holly Jolly Christmas", "Silver and Gold" and more. Even if you don't know all the words, you can instantly hear the music just from the titles. We all can since we hear them endlessly from Thanksgiving to New Year. And why did all those Jewish composers focus on Christmas instead of Chanukah? First, Chanukah is a minor holiday made larger in our lifetime only because of its proximity to America's national holiday of Christmas. Second, and more important, music is a business, and the Jews who created the modern Christmas holiday were as good at business as they were at songwriting. They played for the bigger audience.

Today, a Spotify playlist for Chanukah can include hundreds of songs, though relatively few unique titles. I started counting the recordings of Al HaNisim to include the number here but decided I had better things to do with my time. It would be easier to count the number of different Chanukah titles. Until Adam Sandler debuted his burst of Jewish pride on SNL during Chanukah '94, we pretty much made do with "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" and "Hanukah, Oh Hanukah" if we wanted something in English. But Sandler's now famous lists paved the way for a renaissance of Chanukah music. The secret sauce turned out to be the same recipe that made Irving Berlin a household name in the early 20th century: write in the pop-culture space and you'll get the widest audience. How many Jews were listening to Yeshiva University's acapella group before they started writing parodies to Top 40 Hits and music videos? They've kept themselves in the (Jewish) limelight by sticking with that formula. And that formula even widened the audience for Six13 who brought their own Hamilton parody to the Obama White House.

Where are we now? If you're building a Chanukah playlist today, you can include the great Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Erran Baron Cohen, Matisyahu, and the Indigo Girls covering Woody Guthrie - along with a host of other artists. Part of me feels like we still don't have a wealth of "actual" Chanukah songs (you know, the ones they can play in Target while you shop), but maybe we do have them now and they just need a little time to become tradition? Our kids are growing up on the parodies and the comedy songs and, for them, those are actual Chanukah songs. Maybe they're all actual Chanukah songs. Like this one, or this one, or this one, or Jack Black, or even this one that puts a little Chanukah Talmud to music. Little kids will love this one (or maybe it's for grownups?).

I'm down to my last 200 Chanukah tunes so I'll stop there, but if you want more the web is a endless well. Jewish creativity is also an endless well. Need a national anthem. We got you covered. Want a Chanukah song? Sure thing. Chanukah parody? Done. Need a huge pile of the greatest Christmas songs ever written? No problem, we can do that, too. As Sandler said, Not too shabby.

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