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But rather than viewing the beloved contributions of songwriters like Irving Berlin to the Christmas canon as shameful relics from a painful time when the goal was to assimilate at all costs, “‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” takes a jollier approach. A 1955 recording of Jewish songwriter Mel Tormé’s wistful, understated performance of his iconic “The Christmas Song” is a highlight of this collection. And why not?
“Why shouldn’t Jews write the Christmas songs that everybody sings? Who knows America better than the Jews?” the Idelsohn Society asks. “America is a craft, and Jews have long mastered it, so let it snow.”
This “anything goes” spirit pervades the catchall two-disc set, a compendium of rare and wacky gems ranging from cheerful Disney-like injunctions to “march like Maccabees in a Hanukkah parade” to Bob Dylan’s curiously somber rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” Most of this stuff you won’t have heard before and the detailed liner notes include new essays by music critic Greil Marcus and historian and Forward columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit. Reproductions of album covers dating from the midcentury height of the peppy pro-Hanukkah propaganda effort and sporting what Weissman Joselit aptly describes as “youngsters with eager beaver expressions” are an added bonus.
Given all that, this might be the first-ever holiday album that’s both a scholarly triumph and a guilty pleasure. Take the opening track: A spirited 1950s recording of a 1939 minor-key Zionist anthem by Tin Pan Alley composer Gerald Marks, it begins with a narrator speaking boldly over majestic organ chords: “The miracle of light, as described in the song, can be compared only to eternal Israel, and the rebuilding of the Jewish nation in our time has given Hanukkah an added importance.” George M. Cohan could have written the rousing march tune, with its bouncy piano accompaniment and sighing men’s chorus, that follows. Next, consider the 1960s-era “Chanukah Quiz,” written and performed by Jewish children’s song pioneer Gladys Gewirtz. When she sings, “Four dreidel letters you must know to win: nun and ___ hey and ____” I defy you not to belt out “Gimel!” and “Shin!” like you’re back at Camp Ramah, where Gewirtz served as music director. Then, when all this maniacally chipper indoctrination becomes a bit too much, there’s always Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance,” which for all its talk of hop-hop-hopping around has the lazy, laid-back feel of a campfire song.
That’s not to say that certain parts of “‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” won’t make you cringe. Don McLean’s 1972 “Dreidel,” which uses the relentlessly spinning top as a metaphor for the drudgery of modern life, includes what must be some of the most embarrassing lines ever written: “And I feel like I’m a dippin’ and a-divin’ / My sky shoes are spiked with lead heels!” Once-daring comic Jewish-Christmas spoofs, like Stanley Adams’ and Sid Wayne’s 1962 Yinglish poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Chanukah,” now have the ring of faded clichés.