Holiday music puts the Cha Cha Cha in Chanukah


December always brings a torrent of Christmas-themed recordings by musical artists of all stripes. If you’re at all serious about longevity in a recording career, you record an album of holiday music — the sooner, the better.

No matter what the state of the recording industry, the American public seems to have a bottomless appetite for Christmas songs, regardless of the genre: classical, pop, jazz, country, rap — even death metal.

But while Christmas CDs proliferate, Chanukah-themed albums are seldom forthcoming, and they are hard to locate when they appear. This year offers a bumper crop of three — count ’em, three! — new Chanukah CD collections.

The most traditional comes from the London Jewish Male Choir. Not quite 100 years old as an institution, it sings a wide array of sacred music on “S’u Sh’orim” (Arc Music). The group is one of the world’s foremost Jewish choral ensembles and performs mostly a cappella. Israeli folk, liturgical pieces, Chasidic laments and Ladino songs are all fair game for the choir, whose ranks are open to non-Jews.

The sonorities are thick here, and the soul runs deep. David Hilton’s authoritative bass leads the freylich “Boch Rabeinu,” and Yossele Rosenblatt’s “V’hu Rachum” is a heart-clutching call to prayer by tenor Ben Camissar. “V’al Kulom” has Jason Blair’s tenor soaring over the ensemble, which rolls gently but powerfully. The Ladino numbers show that Jewish soul comes in different flavors, too. This is a great addition to a Chanukah music collection or a very good place to start one.

San Mateo standup comic Lauren Mayer offers something completely different with a sardonic menu of original songs on her self-produced “Latkes, Schmatkes!” It’s a novelty album, albeit one with an ax to grind. Mayer immediately goes for the jugular in “Nine Words”: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

Her “The Jew-in-a-Gentile-World Blues” sums up what she’s after. Likewise, a hip-hop send-up, a country tune, and songs “The Chanuka Cha Cha” and “I Hate Holiday Music” all drive home the draft she feels in December.

But Mayer’s an equal opportunity complainer. On the title number she kvetches about splattered oil and concludes: “Why can’t we eat potato chips instead?” As a singer, she’d never be mistaken for Barbra Streisand, but she does manage to hit the notes. 

The complex relationship of Jews and gentiles to their respective holiday music and that of the other faith is thoroughly explored in the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation’s two-CD collection, “ ’Twas The Night Before Hanukkah.” The complicated topic should be no surprise coming from this outfit, which brought us the “Black Sabbath” compilation, documenting black performers essaying Jewish music. 

Taken as a whole, the collection is a long and multifaceted meditation on tradition versus assimilation. While non-Jews have had virtually no effect on the musical literature of the Festival of Lights, Jews have proven indispensable to Christmas music.

Ray Brenner and Barry Blitzer’s “The Problem” is a funny though incisive musical playlet about the dilemma of how to deal with the overwhelming influence of Christmas for Jews, and it encapsulates much of what the Idelsohn people wrestle with here. The fictional Reform rabbi of the “Hollywood Synagogue,” which comes complete with a health club and shvitz — “Tony Curtis reserved a locker for the High Holy Days!” — is, as Lenny Bruce would say, “so reformed he’s ashamed he’s Jewish.” Ironically, Brenner and Blitzer’s piece is modeled after the brilliant recordings of Stan Freberg, the gentile comic genius from Glendale.

The first disc has some of the more far-reaching musical Chanukah tributes. For tradition, Ukrainian-born Yossele Rosenblatt, with several octaves at his disposal, demonstrates why he was the world’s highest-paid cantor in the early 20th century through his rendition of “Yevonim.” Cantor David Putterman’s ensemble delivers a rousing and obligatory “Ma’oz Tzur” (Rock of Ages), while Tin Pan Alleyman Gerald Marks, who wrote Santa Claus ditties, weighs in with his solemn and historic “Hanukah.” 

Children’s music maven Gladys Gewirtz leads a sing-a-long on “A Chanukah Quiz,” and Temple B’Nai Abraham of Essex County Children’s Choir sings “Svivon Sov Sov Sov” like the Vienna Boys Choir. These are all quite earnest expressions.

Then the Klezmatics and the Klezmer Conservatory Band give us the flavor of old Second Avenue in New York, or at least what they think it sounded like. Debbie Friedman, the Jewish Joan Baez, leads a crowd through her rousing “Latke Song” as her doppelgänger would have done on “We Shall Overcome.”

The curve balls commence when Dust Bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie sings his own sprightly “Hanukkah Dance” (his second wife was Jewish), black folk matriarch Ella Jenkins offers “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” and Don McLean cuts a folk-rock “Dreidel.” Eternal folkie Theodore Bikel sings a Christmas song in English and Hebrew — naturally. 

A number of Jews sang Christmas fare just as sincerely. Pop idol Eddie Fisher sounds earnestly dreamy with “Christmas Eve in My Hometown.” And everybody’s favorite convert, Sammy Davis Jr., exchanges with kids who sound like the Von Trapp children for “It’s Christmas All Over the World.” 

Mel Tormé epitomizes jazz cool on his own “Christmas Song,” while Dinah Shore’s squeaky-clean “Twelve Days of Christmas” could have been sung by June Cleaver. Concert singer and cantor Richard Tucker’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” holds its mud next to Pavarotti’s.

Then there’s the Velvet Underground’s smug Lou Reed wishing everyone, “Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah … or whatever it is that you do,” followed by a song by the Ramones (lead singer Joey Ramone was born Jeffrey Hyman). Latin bandleader and Santeria convert Larry Harlow (nicknamed “El Judio Maravilloso” — The Marvelous Jew) also renders a salsa Christmas number.

It’s only fitting that Bob Dylan, who’s played hide-and-seek with his Jewishness for decades, croaks “Little Drummer Boy.” Jeremiah Lockwood of the Sway Machinery mates “Dreidel” with the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian chant “Iko Iko.” 

If it sounds quite scattered, you’re right: the collection is eclectic to a fare-thee-well. But it also reflects the multiplicity of the American experiment; this music couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It’s as American as Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Day.  

White Rapper Gives Lyrics Kosher Spin


 

Onto the stage walks a Caucasian man in a button-down shirt and thick, plastic glasses. He looks like he would fix your computer. Instead, off come the glasses and out comes the Jewish “bling,” a rhinestone-studded Star of David on a bulky metal chain.

Meet Eric Schwartz, the 29-year-old actor, rapper and musician known to his fans as Smooth E. Think a combination of the satire of Weird Al Yankovich with hip rap persona, sort of Eminem with a Woody Allen smirk. He does both straight-ahead rap and parodies of well-known rap tunes, often with a Jewish twist, though he’s also willing to get R-rated as the mood strikes him.

Schwartz has a gig at The Laugh Factory this week and also just posted his latest parody, a musical take on Michael Jackson called, “Bubbles and Friends.”

When he sat down to be interviewed at a Beverly Hills-adjacent coffee shop, his responses to questions quickly became a one-way rap session.

“I’m white,” said Schwartz, who was raised as a Reform Jew and attends temple. “People are going to notice that right away.”

For a rapper, though, he dresses almost nerdy: “Eminem has his own thing — this is how I dress. I don’t try to look like something that I’m not.”

“People don’t expect the fire that I am about to spit,” he added. “I think that’s why when I’m on stage, people are caught off guard.”

As for his Jewish shtick, it’s a “big part of who I am, but it’s not everything. I do other kinds of music, too,” such as his parody of Jackson. During the interview, one coffee shop employee recognized Schwartz from his televised parody of rapper Eminem as a gay “Feminem.”

But it is his Jewish-themed lyrics that set him apart. “So Kosher” is a parody of the No. 1 hit single “Slow Motion” by Juvenile. Schwartz’s version, goes, in part:

Mmmm, I like it like that.
Can’t eat this and that.
I want a Big Mac.
I don’t know how to snack.
So kosher for me,
So kosher for me.

It’s like I live by rules of the psalm.
Cuz I’m a Jew and I’m strong,
Without tattoos on my arm.

His parody song, “Hannukah Hey Ya,” became a widely distributed animated e-card in 2004. (The e-card was made without his permission. Schwartz finally tracked down Jason Kwon, the animation artist, and both now share credit for the piece.)

Other songs from his CD, “Kosher Cuts,” include “Crazy Jew,” a parody of Outkast’s “I Like the Way You Move,” and “Lose the Gelt,” a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”

His love of hip-hop goes back to when he went to swap meets with his father, a clothing vendor, or “shmata salesman,” as Schwartz put it. After he discovered rap music, he would comb through bins for used discs that he listened to with near religious fervor.

He spent all of his bar mitzvah money on turntables instead of saving for college. But he earned money back by using those same turntables as a DJ at other people’s bar mitzvahs and other gigs. Schwartz earned a degree in journalism from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which has inspired some of his comedy.

“News is everybody’s experience and has a great impact on people,” Schwartz said. “It works the same way with comedy. My comedy is about what’s going on, whether it be pop-culture or politics.”

He was recently quoted saying that President Bush and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein should have used “rap lyrics to duke out international conflicts on the microphone.”

“They should battle it out like in ‘Eight Mile,’ he told The Journal, referring to the movie starring Eminem.

Schwartz’s recent projects include a commercial promoting John Travolta’s latest film, “Be Cool,” in which he accosts Travolta and starts rapping at him. He also narrates the television show, “Animal Atlas,” on the Discovery Channel, and he’s the new host of a Tuesday comedy lineup at the Laugh Factory. In addition, he performs at The Comedy Store, where audiences can judge for themselves whether he really can, as he claims, “shake it like a kosherized pickle.”

Eric Schwartz (

Shlock Rock ‘n’ Roll


If spoof dj Dr. Demento hosted a Purim show, he’d have to spotlight the Jewish band Shlock Rock. Shlock ‘n’ roll includes clever parodies of pop hits like "I Don’t Get No Humentashen (based on the Stones’ "Satisfaction") and "Achashverosh" (think Falco’s "Rock Me Amadeus").

For Purim 2004, the musicians will perform these spoofs, live, in a Southern California appearance March 6 for Chabad of Irvine. They’ll also shlock out to tunes from their new album, "Almost on Broadway," where "Annie’s" "Tomorrow" becomes, "To Maariv."

Band founder Lenny Solomon, a nice Orthodox ex-accountant from Queens, is "the Jewish Weird Al," according to Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah Music.

But his spoofs have a serious message: "It’s spreading Jewish identity and awareness," Solomon, 43, said.

The singer-keyboardist, who is descended from generations of cantors, said Shlock came about by accident in 1985. Then, his band, Kesher, was playing the youth group circuit, and Solomon decided to record the parodies he’d written to interest bored teenagers.

"Never in a million years did I think it would turn into a career," he said.

Yet requests poured in for parody concerts, and Solomon ultimately left Kesher to Shlock full time. Since then, his band has released 23 albums, including original and children’s music, although Solomon remains best known for parodies such as "Hit Me With Your Best Pshot," (Pat Benetar’s "Hit Me With Your Best Shot"), about a student arguing with his rebbe.

Solomon, too, has argued with rebbes, who claim prayer and pop don’t mix.

"But Jews have always taken music from their surroundings," he said. "If a song has a Jewish message, it’s Jewish."

That applies even to "Hamentashen," which has to do with scarcity of holiday pastries. "None left in the bakery," the song laments. "I can’t get no Hamentashen. I can’t get no nosh reaction."

Solomon, for his part, relates more to Mordecai than Mick Jagger. "I’m fighting for Jewish education through music," he said.

The band performs March 6, 7:30 p.m., at the Lake View Senior Center in Irvine. For more information, call (949) 786-5000.

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