Rocking around the Hanukkah menorah

by Philip Brasor

What is the most popular Hanukkah song? It’s probably “I Have a Little Dreidel,” which even a lot of gentiles learn as children. It tends to be the token Jewish song sung in elementary schools during the holiday season, which, of course, is dominated by Christian themes.

But like a lot of Christmas songs, the lyrics of “I Have a Little Dreidel” don’t have a direct connection to the religious holiday with which the song is associated. They are simply about the four-sided top used in a game that is played during Hanukkah, an eight-day festival known as the Festival of Lights that begins at sundown on Dec. 21 this year and commemorates the 2nd-century B.C. rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration.

In other words, it’s a children’s song, thus reinforcing the notion that Hanukkah, which is not the most important religious holiday on the Jewish calendar, was boosted by reformed Jews in the West because they were worried their kids would feel left out of the whole Christmas thing. “Oh Hanukkah” is another holiday song that’s sometimes taught to children because, like “Dreidel,” it’s got a frisky rhythm and playful lyrics. After that, most non-Jewish people’s knowledge of Hanukkah music ends.

On the other hand, Christmas songs are ubiquitous, but one of the truths about the Yuletide musical canon that a lot of Christmas-first boosters overlook is that even those songs are mostly Jewish if you consider the people who wrote them. What, after all, is the most popular Christmas song of all time? If you determine popularity by current statistical standards — broadcasts, publishing and record sales — it’s “White Christmas,” by far. And who wrote “White Christmas?” Israel Isidore Baline, a Jew born in Russia who arrived at the age of 4 on the shores of America, where he eventually changed his name to Irving Berlin.

Berlin wasn’t the only Jewish songwriter to turn his hand to Christmas tunes. As critic Jay Ruttenberg has pointed out, dozens of holiday standards, including “The Christmas Song,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Let it Snow,” were written by Jews who effectively helped secularize Christmas during an era when they were also inventing the American pop song by incorporating black-music forms.

Not surprisingly, there isn’t much in the way of vice versa. The only gentile I can find who wrote a Hanukkah song was Woody Guthrie, who, it should be noted, composed his populist masterpiece, “This Land is Your Land,” as an antidote to Berlin’s stridently patriotic “God Bless America.”

At any rate, the pickings are slim for Hanukkah songs when compared with Christmas songs, and if you want to blame Jewish composers for this slight, save some of your bile for Jewish artists. Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond (“The Jewish Elvis”) have released two Christmas albums each but not one Hanukkah album between them, though Babs earns props for “Yentl.” At least Kenny G — real name Kenneth Gorelick — put one Hanukkah song on his Christmas album.

Indie-rock standard-bearers Yo La Tengo get respect for their almost annual eight-night Hanukkah concert series in their native Hoboken, New Jersey, which started in 2001 and will take place again this year. Still, even they can’t resist the pull of the market, and actually released an EP of Christmas songs at the event several years ago. Also, leader Ira Kaplan has been known to wear Santa Claus costumes during the gigs.

Obviously, Yo La Tengo treat Hanukkah as an occasion (the concerts are all for charity) rather than as a religious observation, which is how Matisyahu, a reggae and hip-hop singer-rapper, approaches it. Matisyahu, an Orthodox Jew, has become quite a successful performer without neglecting the strict rituals mandated by his faith. In that regard, Hanukkah is sort of a — pardon the expression — godsend to believing artists.

In 2006, Matisyahu — born Matthew Miller — gave three Hannukah concerts in New York City and an interview to National Public Radio in which he said that the celebratory aspects of the festival make it “not a problem” to “plug in guitar amps and play music,” unlike on other holidays when such acts are not permitted. He intoned the Hanukkah liturgy during the concerts and was careful about which audience members lit the menorah — the ceremonial candles — on stage. For instance, if someone had lit a menorah earlier, according to custom that person couldn’t do it a second time in the same day.

In a similar vein the self-styled “Hip Hop Hebrew,” Kid Kosher, has released an album and an EP of Hanukkah raps that aim to be both edifying and entertaining. “The concept was to bring to the Jewish holidays the same musical hype that the Christian holidays have,” he says on his Web site.

The idea of Jewish people doing hip-hop is hardly a novelty — the Beastie Boys, after all, are Jewish, as is the salty New Jersey rapper MC Paul Barman, who betrays his background with the kind of hip-intellectual Borscht Belt jokes made famous by Jewish comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. However, neither of these artists has addressed Jewish themes in song.

Say what you will about Adam Sandler’s brand of adolescent humor, the guy has done more to promote Hanukkah than any other Jewish entertainer in recent memory — even if his “The Hanukkah Song” is basically a goof and a lot of Jews themselves are embarrassed by it. The purpose of the song is not really to celebrate the Festival of Lights but rather to out supposedly closeted Jews in show business. In that regard it does have something of an educational side to it, but the Web site “Jew or Not Jew” does a better, and much funnier, job of that.

Where Sandler’s song, musically a cross between Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi, succeeds is in the way it highlights the alienation many Jewish kids feel during the Christmas season, even if they enjoy eight nights of gift-giving instead of a measly one. In that regard it is more like a comment-on-Hanukkah song than a Hanukkah song, and it seems to have sparked its own ironic micro-genre. Two rock bands, The LeeVees and Barenaked Ladies, released Hanukkah-themed CDs this past decade, and jazz singer Kenny Ellis put out an album titled “Swingin’ Dreidel” that includes big-band versions of several well-known Hanukkah songs. There’s even an ambient album called “Hanukkah Lounge” by Craig Taubman that features familiar Hanukkah melodies bathed in club atmospherics. It might sound glib to proclaim, “Hanukkah! It’s not just for Jews any more,” but given the hegemony of Christmas, even in Japan, it’s a timely corrective.