The story behind The Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation’s fascinating new 2-CD set ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah is a simple one. The label, dedicated to telling Jewish history through music, set out to chronicle the music of Hanukkah before discovering that the most famous Christmas songs – “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Christmas Song,” just to name three – were all written by members of the Jewish faith! So the Hanukkah compilation doubled in size, and gained the cheeky subtitle The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights. Those celebrating either holiday will find plenty of cheer and a bit of food for thought on these two discs. One is dedicated to Hanukkah and another to Christmas, with plenty of cross-pollination between the two. This set makes a worthy companion to the Idelsohn Society’s previous Black Sabbath, a look at another relationship in song: in that case, between African-Americans and Jews.
Disc One, or Happy Hanukkah, takes in songs referring to the holiday (Gerald Marks’ “Hanukah,” Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance,” The Klezmatics’ “Hanukah Tree”) and songs central to it (Cantor David Putterman’s “Rock of Ages”). Other songs here celebrate aspects of Jewish culture that make them seasonally appropriate, like Debbie Friedman’s “The Latke Song” or a number of odes to the dreidel. In the latter category comes Ella Jenkins’ rendition of the 1920 folk standard known to children everywhere, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” plus “Grandma’s Dreidel” from comedian (and father of Joel Grey) Mickey Katz and “Dreidel,” from folk-rock troubadour Don McLean in which the singer compares turbulent modern life to the spinning of the dreidel. There are more light-hearted tracks here, too, including the collection’s title song, Stanley Adams and Sid Wayne’s “’Twas The Night Before Chanukah.” (You’ll note the multiple spellings of the holiday; it’s noted in the booklet that there are at least sixteen acceptable ways to spell the holiday that only has five letters in its original Hebrew!) Perhaps ironically, Mickey Katz’s contribution is one of his more “straight” recordings, with Katz earnestly singing and playing clarinet. As collections of Hanukkah songs are far and few between, this disc makes an entertaining and valuable release in its own right. Alas, Tom Lehrer’s “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica” didn’t make the cut! Neither did Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” as the compilers explained in the notes that it was too “well-trodden.” Ah, well, maybe next time! There’s always the recording of Sandler’s song by Neil Diamond, one of the most famous Jewish purveyors of holiday music to be absent from these proceedings!
Hit the jump for much more, including the complete track listing and order link!
Eclectic though the first disc is, Disc Two – Merry Christmas – is arguably even more diverse. It features a host of Jewish artists from different generations tackling Christmas songs both famous and not-so-famous in a variety of styles from punk to salsa. Though no tracks are present from A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector, the album conceived by a Jewish-American producer featuring a number of non-Jewish artists singing songs by Jewish writers (such as Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the compilers have included “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight)” from pop devotees and onetime Spector-produced artists Ramones. Legendary as Joey and co. are, though, they’re eclipsed by another rock artist represented here: Bob Dylan. The former Robert Zimmerman’s heartfelt “The Little Drummer Boy” has been included from his 2009 Christmas in the Heart, an album that shocked many for its non-subversive embrace of classic Tin Pan Alley Christmas music. One of the songs recorded by Dylan on the set was “The Christmas Song,” written by Robert Wells and Mel Torme; Mel’s 1955 version of his own song can be heard on this disc.
You’ll also hear classics (“The Twelve Days of Christmas” in a rendition by Dinah Shore), shoulda-been classics (Sammy Davis Jr.’s “It’s Christmas All Over the World,” written by the great Hugh Martin), as well as rarities sure to perk up the ears of pop aficionados. Danny Kaye, like Mickey Katz on Disc 1, plays it straight for a tender reading of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and Eddie Cantor is touching on “The Only Thing I Want for Christmas,” reminding listeners to cherish what they have. The Ames Brothers’ “I Got a Cold for Christmas” and Ray Brenner and Barry E. Blitzer’s “The Problem” both bring levity. There are strong flavors of Christianity and Judaism on Theodore Bikel’s wonderful “Sweetest Dreams Be Thine,” delivered in Bikel’s Hebrew/English blend, and ethnic flavor of another color is delivered with Larry Harlow’s “El Dia de la Navidad.” Harlow, of course, was the salsa music great born Lawrence Ira Kahn! Legendary impresario and trumpeter Herb Alpert makes a delicious appearance with “Jingle Bells,” with the Jewish artist taking the Christmas song the faux mariachi route with his Tijuana Brass! And perhaps the least unusual spreader of holiday joy around, Mr. Lou Reed, makes a short holiday introduction, taken from a rare promotional sampler CD.
‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah is packaged in a DVD-sized digipak with a squarebound 32-page softcover book containing notes from Jenna Weissman Joselit and Greil Marcus, plus detailed track-by-track liner notes on the artists and the songs. Alas, there is no discographical annotation for each song. If you’re looking for something unusual to place under the tree for those friends who happen to be holiday music fanatics, chances are there will be something to surprise and delight them on this fine, well-curated compilation exploring the ties that bind us all during the holiday season.
You can order ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah at the link below!
Various Artists, ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah (Idelsohn Society RSR 020, 2012)
CD 1: Happy Hanukkah
- Hanukah – Gerald Marks
- Hanukkah Dance – Woody Guthrie
- Yevonim – Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt
- Rock of Ages – Cantor David Putterman
- Klezzified – Klezmer Conservatory Band
- A Chanukah Quiz – Gladys Gewirtz
- Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel – Ella Jenkins
- Svivon Sov Sov Sov – Temple B’Nai Abraham of Essex County Children’s Choir
- ‘Twas the Night Before Chanukah – Stanley Adams and Sid Wayne
- Ocho Kandelikas – Flory Jagoda
- Grandma’s Dreidel – Mickey Katz
- The Latke Song – Debbie Friedman
- Hanukah Tree – The Klezmatics
- Maccabee March – Shirley Cohen
- Mo’Oz Tsur – Sol Zim
- Dreidel – Don McLean
- Dreidel – Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson
CD 2: Merry Christmas
- Holiday I.D. – Lou Reed
- Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight) – Ramones
- The Christmas Song – Mel Torme
- The Little Drummer Boy – Bob Dylan
- Sweetest Dreams Be True – Theo Bikel
- O Little Town of Bethelem – Richard Tucker
- The Problem – Ray Brenner and Barry E. Blitzer
- The Twelve Days of Christmas – Dinah Shore
- Santa Claus Came in the Spring – Benny Goodman
- El Dia de la Navidad – Larry Harlow
- O Come All Ye Faithful – Danny Kaye
- The Only Thing I Want for Christmas – Eddie Cantor
- It’s Christmas All Over the World – Sammy Davis, Jr.
- I Got a Cold for Christmas – The Ames Brothers
- Christmas Eve in My Hometown – Eddie Fisher
- Jingle Bells – Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
- White Christmas – Mitch Miller