Deck The Halls With Boughs of Challah

Jews Created Soundtrack for Both Hanukkah and Christmas

Berlin’s Harem: Composer Irving Berlin serenades some of songdom’s leading ladies, including Dinah Shore, second from right.
Berlin’s Harem: Composer Irving Berlin serenades some of songdom’s leading ladies, including Dinah Shore, second from right.

By Eileen Reynolds

Published December 03, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
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A Jewish music preservation group sets out to make the definitive Hanukkah compilation and ends up with an album dripping with Christmas cheer.

That’s not just a humdrum holiday punch line — it’s also an accurate description of the genesis of the Idelsohn Society’s December release, “‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights,” a catalog of efforts by a century’s worth of Jewish musicians to head off the yuletide blues. And really, what did the Idelsohn researchers expect?

“The archive of Hanukkah songs was not as deep and varied as we had imagined,” they admit in an introduction to the two-disc set, revealing a truth that will surprise no one familiar with the story “of a Jewish people embracing a somewhat minor Jewish holiday” in a spirited, if not wholly successful, attempt to compete with the merry month-long “red-and-green festival of gifts, food, and decorated trees” that is an American Christmas.

Mel Torme
Getty Images
Mel Torme

Hand-wringing over the relationship between Hanukkah and Christmas is nothing new, of course, and the Idelsohn Society traces that tension all the way back to 1870, when Christmas was declared a national holiday. It was then that a New York City-based group called The American Hebrews started campaigning for a “Grand Revival of the Jewish National Holiday of Chanucka in a manner and style never before equaled.” In keeping with the martial spirit of the post-Civil War era, one early revival effort took the form of a Young Men’s Hebrew Association-sponsored military pageant (the better to celebrate the Maccabees as an ancestral race of manly Jewish warriors).

And so began the great American Jewish war against Christmas.

Almost as soon as Christmas was stamped on calendars as a national holiday, it became just that — a widespread secular celebration that centered on presents, sleigh bells and sweets, and had little to do with Christian rituals marking the birth of Christ. American Jews, even as they hastened to develop festive eating and gift-giving traditions for their own eight-night festival, couldn’t resist a turn on Santa’s knee.


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