This music review was first published in The Times of Israel.
Don McLean sings about dreidels and Dinah Shore croons about a partridge in a pear tree on “ ’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah,” a holiday-swapping new album that looks at how the Jewish festival and Christmas have influenced each other across decades of American music.
Comprised of two CDs, one devoted to each holiday, the collection features a mix of the famous and obscure — descriptions that apply to both the songs and their performers. While listeners will likely get caught up in in the sounds of Mel Torme, Woody Guthrie and the Ramones, they also get a musical lesson about religious culture in the US, which is ultimately what the album’s about.
“As soon as Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, the competitive campaign to beef up Hanukkah . . . went into high gear,” report the album’s liner notes.
As the notes suggest, relations between the winter holidays have often been simultaneously conflicted and symbiotic, with Jews responding to their marginal status by elevating a relatively minor holiday as an alternative to Christmas, and at the same time providing much of the music enjoyed by Christians.
Talented Jewish songwriters “had their musical cake and ate it too,” the liner notes continue.Bonnie Weiss, an expert on the Great American Songbook, says that half the Christmas standards from the 1940s and ’50s — including timeless hits such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silver Bells” — were penned by Jews.
Jews have consistently used music to negotiate their place in American society, saysDavid Katznelson, one of four founding members of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, the New York-based group that assembled the album.
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© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.