Music for Hanukkah?

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

Call me Scrooge if you want, but at about this time every year I become sick and tired of hearing "Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night" and the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's "Messiah" everywhere I go! Elevators, stores and radio stations inundate everyone with one Christmas tune after another. When you phone a business and they put you on hold, chances are they'll play "Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer" for you, whether you like it or not. Even public radio stations trot out every piece of classical music they can find in their libraries which has the word "Christmas" in its title.

Meanwhile eight days of Hanukkah come and go and the public at large hardly ever hears a single tune associated with the Jewish holiday. Why?

Two major reasons, I suppose. First, and most obviously, the majority of people in our country claim to be Christian. And Christmas has become so pervasive and commercial, it is now an unofficial national holiday, not at all limited to Christians the way Hanukkah is of interest almost uniquely to Jews. Secondly, a great deal of music has been written specifically for Christmas, while finding music about Hanukkah is much more difficult. Irving Berlin, for example, didn't write "I'm Dreaming of a White Hanukkah," even though he was Jewish.

What can be done about this situation? Two things, I suppose. First, you can buy recordings of Jewish music and listen to them whenever you want. Second, you can call radio stations and encourage them to program some music for Hanukkah this month.

But what is Jewish music? That's a good question. Glad you asked. If we define it as music by Jewish composers, then anything by Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Mahler, Darius Milhaud, Morton Gould, Kurt Weil, George Gershwin, Ernest Bloch, Maks Goldins or Charles Alkan would qualify. That would make Bernstein's "Mass" Jewish music -- a strange concept.

Perhaps Jewish music is music written on Jewish themes. You have, for example, Bernstein's Third Symphony (the "Kaddish")(DGG 445245-2 with the composer conducting); Bloch's "Baal Shem Suite for Violin & Piano" (Orion 7813-2), his famous "Schelomo: Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello & Orchestra" ( Mercury 432 718-2), his "From Jewish Life" for cello and piano (Centaur CRC 2140), or his "Trois poèmes juifs" (Three Jewish Poems) (Vanguard OCV 4046); and Goldins' "Eighteen Jewish Folk Songs for Soprano, Violin and Piano" (Campion RRCD 1340).

Under that definition, you don't have to be Jewish to write Jewish music. Witness Sergei Prokofiev's "Overture on Hebrew Themes for String Quartet, Clarinet & Piano, Op. 34" (Sony MLK 69249); Maurice Ravel's "Chanson hébraïque" (Hebrew Song), sung exquisitely by Cecilia Bartoli on a recent London release (452 667-2); Dmitri Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 13 in B-flat Minor, Op. 113 (Babi Yar)" (Naxos 8.550630) and "From Jewish Folk Poetry" (Chandos 8800), and Max Bruch's "Kol Kidrei for Cello & Piano, Op. 47" (DGG 125383).

Evidently London Records has no trouble deciding what Jewish music is. They put together more than an hour of it for a recording called "L'Chaim (To Life): The Ultimate Jewish Music Collection." It features the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Stanley Black. This CD includes the main theme to "Exodus;" "Hava Nagila;" "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset" and "To Life" from "Fiddler on the Roof;" "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena;" "Second Avenue Serenade;" "Raisins and Almonds;" "And the Angels Sing;" "My Yiddishe Momme;" "Joseph! Joseph!;" "Eili Eili;" "Kol Nidre;" and a "Finale" (London 448 879-2). The arrangements are a bit bombastic for my taste -- too much to take at one sitting. Like many of the recordings mentioned here, "L'Chaim" would work well on a classical radio station if only one composition from the CD were programmed at a time. This would be more difficult if you had to do your own programming at home.

The choice of music for Hanukkah can be extended exponentially by including Jewish performers in the mix. That list would include Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Michael Tilson Thomas, Georg Solti and so many of the world's top musicians, past and present, that it would be impossible to list them all here! The selection is considerably narrower if you confine it to Jewish musicians performing Jewish music. But, even there, I have one of my strongest recommendations: Itzhak Perlman as the violin soloist in "Live in the Fiddler's House," a program of exciting klezmer music on Angel (CDC 72435-56209-2). This recording has more variety than most of these collections since it includes Brave Old World, Andy Statman, The Klezmatics, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band in addition to Perlman.

Another CD which features a Jewish performer playing Jewish music is harpist Rachel Van Voorhees' recording of "Jewish Favorites" (Centaur CRC 2317). This CD should be very useful to any classical music radio station trying to incorporate appropriate music for Jewish holidays into their schedule. The harp gives every piece a classical feeling, and they are all short. Furthermore, the program notes clearly indicate which pieces are for Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover. There is also a section of "Songs of the Sabbath." In addition there are songs of love, songs of struggle and songs of hope: 35 selections in all -- everything from "Havah Nagilah," "My Little Dreydl" and "Hatikvah" to "Sunrise, Sunset" from "Fiddler on the Roof."

Of course the harp is a better instrument for slow, lyrical pieces than it is for an Israeli hora, so not all of these pieces succeed equally well in these transcriptions, and I don't think anyone would want to listen to the entire CD at once. But judicious broadcast use of these Jewish pieces would work quite well and would interest a much wider audience than just the ethnic group to which they owe their origin.

But Hanukkah lasts eight days. Surely it's appropriate to fill some of that time with 100% kosher Jewish folk songs. My favorite CDs include Netania Davrath singing "Russian, Israeli & Yiddish Folk Songs" on a double-CD Vanguard set (OVC 8058/9); and Moshe Leiser singing "Yankele: Chansons Yiddish," a collection of 16 songs with voice, guitar, violinist and accordionist (OPUS 111 OPS 30-107).

And there is at least one CD which is directly and totally related to the subject: "The Chanukkah Story" (that's the way they spell it), narrated by Theodore Bikel, with the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (Western Wind CD WWD 1818, available through Allegro Corporation, Portland, Ore.). This album tells the tale of Hanukkah in story and song. It was written by Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in New York. The music is an eclectic compilation of folk songs and more formal compositions from many different sources reflecting the diverse and multinational nature of the Jewish experience. "The Chanukkah Story" will be broadcast in mid-December on over 300 radio stations throughout the U.S. and Canada via Public Radio International.

Finally, if you want to make a smooth transition between the Jewish and Christian holidays this year, select the music of Felix Mendelssohn. He was born into a Jewish family that converted to Christianity. He wrote a lot of catchy tunes, all of which I find a lot more agreeable to listen to at this time of the year than "I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus."


Additional Jewish music you might want to consider for your Hanukkah holiday pleasure:

  • Martha Schlamme singing "Raisins & Almonds: Jewish Folk Songs" (Vanguard OVC 6026)

  • "The Singing Waltz: Klezmer Guitar and Mandolin" with Jeff Warschauer playing those two instruments (Omega OCD 3027)

  • "Israel Sings!" folk songs by the Karmon Israeli Dancers & Singers, Gil Aldema, director (Vanguard OVC 6019)

  • Sandra Bessis sings "Judeo-Spanish Songs" (ARB 1413)

  • Baritone Alberto Jona sings "Jewish Melodies of the 20th Century" (Nuova Era NUO 7261), featuring works by Ravel, Milhaud, Rodrigo, Nin-Culmell, Liberavici and others

  • "Jiddischkeit: A Concert in the Jewish Spirit (Yiddish songs and prayers)" with Bente Kahan, Gjertrud's Gipsy Orchestra (Victoria VCD 19064)

  • Shura Lipovsky: "Moments of Jewish Life," featuring the Jeff Warschauer Klezmer Ensemble with Zalmen Mlotek, piano (Omega OCD 3026)

  • Miriam Meghnagi singing "Songs in Exile," 15 songs of the Jewish peoples from the Mediterranean countries, Italy, and the Sephardic and Ashkenazic (Fone 89 F 08 CD)

  • "Jan Peerce Sings Hebrew Melodies," with the RCA Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo 09026-61687-2)

  • Richard Tucker, tenor, singing "A Passover Seder Festival," songs and prayers from the traditional Passover Seder (Sony Masterworks MDK 48304) -- oops, sorry, wrong holiday!

  • "Voice of the Turtle: From the Shores of the Golden Horn," a collection of Turkish Sephardic songs. (Olympia TIC 173)

  • "Thank God It's Friday! -- The Music of Shabbat," traditional Jewish music from a spiritual journey of 3,000 years. (Vox 7546)

  • "Out of the Ghetto: Songs of the Jews in America," with Leon Lishner, bass; Lazar Weiner, piano. (Vanguard 6012)

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