Holiday Music: Jump-Off-A-Bridge Edition

Jonathan Bellman

Friend Eric (I initially typed “Fiend Eric” by accident and, in fact, almost left it that way) passes along the following: a Chanuka song written by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, someone whose politics, behavior, and self-righteousness I absolutely detest. Apropos of a conversation he had with Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist for the Atlantic, he wrote a song for our odd little eight-days-of-light-and-cholesterol holiday.  Goldberg’s—um heartwarming article is here; or you can cut directly to the song and video.

 The remarks that follow the article provide find a microcosm of Jewish interior life (including the non-Jews weighing in).  They love the song; they hate the song. Hatch Is A Friend Of The Jews; With Friends Like This Who Needs Enemies.  If He’s Such A Friend Of The Jews Why Doesn’t He Vote With Jewish Values In Mind Like For Health Care; How Dare You Try To Define Jewish Political Values. And on and on. I was raised by old-school, provide-for-everyone-but-YOU-work-harder-in-school-and-WHY-AREN’T-YOU-PRACTICING-MORE Jewish liberals, and I’m squarely within that tradition myself, so to my ear the mealy-mouthing about the great respect Hatch has for us is pretty annoying—for a variety of reasons, some of which are best left unstated.  But never mind; that’s neither here nor there. 

What is relevant is the song itself, and anxiety over the dearth and or plentitude and or quality of Chanuka songs.  In the early-to-mid 1960s, at San Jose School in Pomona, CA, we all sang Christmas carols, and the teachers would try to be inclusive (for the six Jewish kids in the school, two of which had my last name and three of which shared another one) and also sing the dreydl song.  Now, Adam Sandler aside, this is a kiddie-song piece of crap, and every musical sense I had would just wither when all my classmates would look inquiringly at me when, after “Lo, How A Rose Ere Blooming” and “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing” and so on, the teacher would bravely start that damned thing and Jon-with-the-piano-lessons would more or less have to join in.  The sense of “you guys sing…that?” was unmistakable.  Not anti-Semitism, not contempt, not judgment, just honest-to-God little-kid bafflement.  I never blamed them.

So, such crossovers as Mendelssohn’s music in “Hark!” and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” aside, there is a much anxiety about Jews and Holiday Music.  Should the kids sing it or not, is it participating in society or losing our heritage, how shrilly should we act like “Don’t Let the Lights Go Out” (don’t ask) is as good as the classic Christmas tunes, etc.  The fact is, of course, that Christmas and Chanuka are by no means equivalent holidays (despite the way my incompletely educated grandfather used to speak of them), so it is no surprise at all that a huge majority of those in the western world would evolve a large repertoire of lovely music inspired by one of their two most important holidays while a tiny minority there—to wit, my tribe—would not be as successful doing the same for a minor and, as Goldberg points out, odd and problematic holiday.  Some of the remarks after the article speak to this, and I don’t need to get into the history and theology of it here; suffice to say that the origins and subsequent interpretations (appropriations, really) of Chanuka are complicated and much argued over.   Shall we talk about the music?

From composer Madeline Stone we get poppy minor-key Ashkenaziana (it opens with a  sort of tip ’o the yarmulke to the Yiddish classic, “Khanike, oh Khanike”) produced according to the School of the Eurovision Song Contest—the bouncy beats and paleosynths of the early eighties, it sounds like.  From the uncomfortable-looking Sen. Hatch, we get a couple of verses of the explanatory doggerel typical of Chanuka songs, feloniously compounded with such rhymes as place with days, believe with history etc.  I’m sure Sen. Hatch did this as a gesture of friendship (the bygone Mormon practice of baptizing deceased Jews aside, a lot of Mormons feel close to Jewish religion and culture and so on), and certainly there are let-there-be-peace-on-earth-and-let-it-begin-with-me points to be granted to Syrian-American Rasheeda Azar (of Terre Haute), who does a creditable job singing it.  All that said, the thing still just makes me writhe and wince.

It is, um, a gesture of something.  It’s no classic; it’s not anything I want to hear again, even.  Why must every Chanuka song lecture, or retell the story?  Christmas songs aren’t Cliff Notes, are they?  Why the neo-shtetl music, for heaven’s sake—how is that relevant in 2009?!  WHY ARE YOU ROLLING YOUR EYES AND RETREATING?  TURN THOSE LIGHTS BACK ON

I gotta grade.


About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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8 Responses to Holiday Music: Jump-Off-A-Bridge Edition

  1. CJS says:

    Or we could just drive hot spikes into our eardrums.
    I gotta grade too.

  2. GW says:

    There is actually a interesting anxiety within the LDS church with regard to Judaism, as the present priesthood is held only in absence of Kohanim. As Wikipedia puts it:
    “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives legal right of Kohanim to constitute the Presiding Bishopric, when so directed by the First Presidency. (See The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 68). When LDS Kohanim are not available, Melchizedek priesthood holders substitute. To date, all men who have served as the Presiding Bishop have been Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and none have been publicly identified as Kohenim.”

  3. Jonathan says:

    Meaning no offense, GW, I’m thinking “whatever” on this one. Now that priestly descent is coming to be genetically traceable (cf the studies of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, for example), I don’t see the Mormons running out to find Kohanim to lead them!

  4. Awright, awright; you’re playing a board game, in which each of the players represents a nationality, ethnic group, or language group. You’re whatever. On your next move, you land on the square marked “Kenny G has just recorded a tribute song to your people!” According to the rules of the game, do you:
    a. go back one space
    b. go back two spaces
    c. lose a turn
    d. b&c

  5. jonathan says:

    e. rend garments, apply sackcloth and ashes, fast, promise to obey the laws with renewed vigor and not backslide. Or:
    f. LOSE.

  6. Maria Lj says:

    g. blame Canada?

  7. eba says:

    Yes, blame Canada.

  8. I like your point about Hanukkah being a blip in the Jewish religious calendar, when compared with Christmas, which is a major event in the Christian calendar. I might point out that Christians are also very fond of Jews, especially Christians who are evangelical and practically Zionists, and I think they feel bad about leaving out their Jewish brethren. Of course, you have the nut jobs who worry about Christmas disappearing (even though it has also become a thoroughly secular holiday) altogether, but most mainline Protestant and less fundamentalist Evangelicals hate to leave the people of Jesus Christ out altogether.

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