The Klezmatics: Happy Joyous Hanukkah [purchase]
For the next two weeks, we will be looking at holiday music that is not Christmas related. This is not evidence of the phony War on Christmas. Instead it is actually a surrender to the Christmas juggernaut. There is so much Christmas music that we decided to sweep it to the side this year, and leave space for other songs of the season, secular or religious.
Hanukkah is a difficult holiday, and not only to spell. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing hot and cold and getting presents—usually eight, one for each night representing the key myth of the holiday, slow burning oil—when I was a kid, or lighting the menorah, or (especially) eating latkes. But I quickly came to realize that my family’s (and most Jews’) celebration of Hanukkah was really so that we wouldn’t feel left out when all of the Christian kids were having their big, gift-laden Christmas celebration.
In reality, Hanukkah is a pretty minor holiday in the Jewish religion. It is so minimally important that observant Jews don’t have to do, or refrain from doing, anything particularly special. There’s no service, you can drive, work, do whatever, as long as you light the menorah at sundown. Instead, it just became a big deal because it had two critical attributes—it came around the same time as Christmas, and there was a tradition of gift giving, although typically “gelt” or money, in modest amounts. But, over time, starting in the United States, and then traveling around the globe, it became a bigger and bigger deal, as a seasonal counterweight to Santa and the like. So, gifts became bigger and more important. Saturday Night Live came up with Hanukkah Harry, as the analogue to Saint Nick, and we have the Mensch on the Bench, to equate to the Elf on the Shelf. It is, in many ways, kind of pathetic how Jews feel the need to have their own Christmas, even setting up Hanukkah Bushes. I honestly think it would have been cooler, if we Jews had not put Hanukkah on steroids, just allowed our kids to know before our Christian counterparts that Santa is a myth, and enjoyed being the only ones getting gifts at Purim. Or if people just sucked it up, and admitted that they were celebrating Christmas, which the Supreme Court has recognized has a secular component these days. But, as they say, it is what it is, and I can’t complain about getting stuff for Hanukkah and, especially, eating latkes.
My concerns about Hanukkah simply being Christmas-lite are dwarfed (elved?) by my concerns about what the holiday really means. As a kid, we were told that it was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple, which had been desecrated by pagans. We were taught to have pride in the Jewish nationalist freedom fighters who reclaimed the symbol of our religion from the Greeks, led by a hero nicknamed “Judah The Hammer”? And, technically, that isn’t wrong.
There is, however, a bigger picture. And my concerns become clear when you realize that the Maccabees, the liberators of the Temple, were actually religious fundamentalists, who rejected the more cosmopolitan Hellenizing influence of the Greeks in favor of strict adherence to Jewish law and practice and who engaged in forced conversions. In some ways, the Hellenizers were more like the assimilated Jews that I’m most comfortable with, and the Maccabees and their crowd were more like the Orthodox, who cling to the old ways (but with a side of ass-kicking). So, as a secular atheist of Jewish ancestry, I find it hard to root too hard for the Maccabees these days. (What happened to the losing side, you may ask. Scholars believe that some returned to traditional observance, but many may have been attracted to a new, upstart religion, Christianity. But we aren’t talking about that right now).
Finally, one of the big problems with Hanukkah is the lack of good music, at least as compared to Christmas. There are a couple of tunes that pretty much every member of the tribe knows, like “Oh Hanukkah” or “I Have A Little Dreydel.” My wife’s Jewish relatives have a cute song about Latkes, that no one else I know has ever heard, and there are Adam Sandler’s amusing litanies of who is, and who is not, a Hanukkah celebrant. There have been other modern musicians who have, with some success, written Hanukkah songs, but they are just not as well-known as, say, the 437th most popular Christmas song.
Which brings us to the excellent song featured above. Performed by The Klezmatics, who, for a quarter century, have played klezmer music, the folk music of Eastern European Jews, while also incorporating other music, it arose from a project in which, like Billy Bragg and Wilco, they were given access to Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics. Turns out, Woody wrote a bunch of Hanukkah songs. His second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia (Arlo and Nora’s mom), was Jewish, and her mother, Aliza, was a well-known Yiddish poet. In 1942, Woody and family moved to Brooklyn, and he became involved in the Coney Island Jewish community, writing numerous Jewish-themed songs, including enough Hanukkah tunes for a whole album. “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” is, for the most part, a happy, joyous song (although like most of Jewish history, the happiness is tempered by tragedy), and in its counting of the lights of the menorah is sort of reminiscent of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” if shorter and less annoying, as well as the quite good spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” (also known as "Born in Bethlehem").
Proving that it is hard to discuss Non-Christmas Holiday Songs, without discussing Christmas Songs.