December wasn’t always like this. Christmas only became an official American holiday by act of Congress in 1870. Chanukah was considered a minor Jewish holiday back then. And there were no big-box stores crushing the life out of local entrepreneurs and sparking a shopping dementia that began the day after Thanksgiving (if not earlier).
Although the largest influx of Jewish immigrants to the United States was still a decade away in 1870, some of the Jews already present decided that the official recognition accorded to that other holiday necessitated a drive to make Chanukah a comparably major event. One suspects that it required the advent of mass media to make this dubious dream a reality, to the eternal gratitude of retailers and advertising moguls across the continent.
It certainly required mass media to disseminate the popular music that salutes both holidays. “’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights,” a new two-CD package from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, is a vivid, if occasionally excruciating reminder of the prevalence of such tunes. The album is worth having, if only to read the excellent essays in the book that comes with the music; it contains historically astute offerings from Jenna Weissman Joselit and Greil Marcus. If you put the music in that larger context, you can discern the outlines of the history of Jewish assimilation and identity in America in the 20th century and after.
The two CDs offer an amusing contrast. The first features mostly Jewish artists performing Chanukah songs, ranging from a lovely 1913 recording of “Yevonim” featuring a young and powerful Yossele Rosenblatt, to a deliciously funky New Orleans-tinged “Dreidel” from Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson. The Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Klezmatics do themselves proud as usual, and there are a couple of surprises from Woody Guthrie and Ella Jenkins.
In comparison, the second disk is a compilation of Jewish artists singing a motley, not to say downright bizarre, collection of Christmas songs. A few of these recordings are great fun; the Ramones singing “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight)” and a late-ish Benny Goodman rendering of “Santa Claus Come in the Spring” are very entertaining. But the bulk of the recordings are dire; they range from the mawkishness of Danny Kaye’s “O Come All Ye Faithful” to a painfully gimmicky Herb Alpert “Jingle Bells,” a strangely somnolent Dinah Shore “Twelve Days of Christmas” and Bob Dylan’s just-plain-weird rendering of “Little Drummer Boy.” The nadir, though, must be the closing track on the second disk, Mitch Miller and his Gang murdering Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” You don’t have to share Philip Roth’s gimlet-eyed view of the song as a deliberate de-sacralization of a major Christian holiday to be appalled by this gruesome version.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of the recordings on both CDs come from the 1950s and early ’60s, and they perfectly represent the awkward place of Jews in post-WWII, post-Holocaust suburban America. It’s hardly original to say that the pressure on Jews to “fit in” was at its most intense in the period between the creation of the state of Israel and the Six-Day War.
I do not choose those signposts casually. Jewish-American identity has long been linked to the Jewish state in both good and bad ways, and the importance to our community of the Israeli victory in 1967 has been often remarked upon. Taken in tandem with the rise of identity politics on the left and ethnic assertiveness on the right, the Six-Day War made it palatable to be more openly, assertively Jewish for the first time since the end of the Second World War, and blunted the often self-generated need to assimilate.
The Jews-do-Christmas half of “Night Before Hanukkah” is an interesting case in point. Larry Harlow’s “El Dia de la Navidad” and the Ramones tune both date from after 1967. One is an assertion of another ethnic identity — as a Jew in salsa, Harlow’s loyalties are understandably double-edged — and the other is a fairly blunt parody of a certain down-market version of the non-Jewish world. It’s pretty hard to imagine either record being made in 1955 (although the Ramones cut has some nice echoes of doo-wop). It is impossible to conceive of most of the other selections on this CD being released at any other time.
The same could be said of several of the cuts on the Chanukah disk. The didactic nature of Gerald Marks’ “Hanukah” and the tot-oriented “Maccabee March” by Shirley Cohen are redolent of the ’50s at their ungainly musical worst. On the other hand, to be absolutely fair, the Mickey Katz instrumental “Grandma’s Dreidel” from 1958 is a little gem, with great trumpet work from Ziggy Elman and Mannie Klein. The Don McLean “Dreidel,” a ponderous, self-important, unstructured dog of a song, was cut in 1972.
Of course, the ultimate irony lost in most discussions of the so-called December Dilemma is that Chanukah — a post-biblical holiday — is a celebration of the most resolutely nationalistic of Jewish anti-assimilationists. All those folks recording anodyne Chanukah songs — particularly in the 1950s — were actually extolling precisely the opposite of their own viewpoint. The result is an outcome as unsought as the transformation of both holidays into secular tools for Santa-worship and conspicuous (over)consumption.
“’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights,” a new two-CD package, is available from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (www.idelsohnsociety.com) and from the usual array of retailers both on- and off-line.