Without Jews, there would be no Christmas music.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. But the Chosen People have done much to advance the cause. The best-selling single of all time, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, was composed by Irving Berlin. Over the years, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow have all cashed in on their pop stardom and recorded Christmas albums, regardless of their heritage.
As a longtime connoisseur of Christmas music (and a research assistant on the biography Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir), I’m well-versed in this little bit of irony. But for many years I’ve wondered, “Where is all the Chanukah music?” In all my years of digging through dusty crates labeled “Holiday,” why have I never stumbled across a second-hand album that depicted the Barry Sisters lighting a menorah on its sleeve?
(Uh, this might not be what our trusty columnist had in mind.)
At long last, the answer to my question has arrived, via And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past As Told By The Records We Have Loved And Lost (Crown Publishers). This delightful book was compiled and authored by Roger Bennett and Josh Kun, two of the four masterminds behind the Reboot Stereophonic label (which reissues lost Jewish-American musical treasures such as 1959′s Bagels And Bongos). And smack in the middle of its 240 pages, all of them teeming with lively commentary and vivid album art reproductions, is an entire chapter about the Jewish holidays on long-playing records.
Bennett estimates he and Kun own approximately 25 different Chanukah titles between them. Yet only a smattering appear in their book. “Much of the Chanukah vinyl fits into the same genre, a treacly celebration of a festival that became increasingly dominant as kind of Jewish Christmas,” says Bennett. “If you look at the festivals, Chanukah was almost irrelevant for a huge amount of time.”
But as merchants pushed Christmas earlier and earlier into the calendar, until the baby Jesus arrived with the last of the trick-or-treaters, Chanukah followed suit and rose in prominence. And celebrations – even pumped-up ones – call for musical accompaniment. “These were the soundtrack to a thousand terrible Chanukah parties over the ages,” Bennett says.
Still, if the authors seem hard-pressed to heartily endorse Chanukah Song Parade by Gladys Gewirtz, or Latkes And Hamentashen: Holiday Treats For All Ages, written by Jackie Cytrynbaum and “seasoned, served, and sung” by Fran Anvi, they are nevertheless excited to introduce them to wider audiences.
“What I love about all the Chanukah records,” asys Kun, “is the arc that they create, in terms of what they tell about American Jewish identity, when you put them all out on the table together.” As you follow the trajectory, from The Moishe Oysher Chanukah Party in the 1940s to the 1967 releases Have A Jewish Christmas…? and Streisand’s A Christmas Album, “you can actually see the way that these specifically Jewish rituals start to adapt and respond to being part of larger American mainstream forces,” Kun observes.
And mainstream American responded in kind, as the authors disclose in chapter ten, “Stop Singing Our Songs: Non-Jewish Masters Of The Jewish Melody.” “The greatest-selling Jewish album of all time is by an Italian-American from New Jersey, a Catholic girl whose Hebrew and Yiddish is flawless,” says Bennett, referring to 1961′s Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites. The Yom Kippur prayer “Kol Nidre” has been recorded by both Perry Como and Johnny Mathis.
“Take Neil, Barry, and Barbra – who we call the Holy Trinity – and stack them up against Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, and Connie Francis, and just look at the wonderful polyglot that has been the American Jewish experience,” Bennett adds.
The curious will have many opportunities to investigate Bennett and Kun’s findings in the months ahead. On December 11 at Joe’s Pub in New York City, they’re hosting a program that features many artists from the book performing for the first time in decades. (“Like a live version of the Buena Vista Social Club, but with Jews,” the venue suggests in its calendar blurb.) An exhibit of the LPs is headed to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco next July. They even have their own line of holiday greeting cards, reproducing the art from classics such as Chanukah Carols by TV character actor Stanley Adams and songwriter Sid Wayne.
Or you could just pick up a copy of And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl. It makes a perfect gift – for any celebration.