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Still, the Idelsohn Society’s openhearted embrace of the kitschy and dated is what makes “‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” so appealing. Who wants to listen to another anthology of timeless classics? It’s much more fun to travel back to the 1980s with the Ramones, to hear Danny Kaye take a plausibly reverent stab at “O Come All Ye Faithful” or to imagine the elegant cocktail party where Benny Goodman’s big band might have set the mood for romance with the love-struck strains of “Santa Claus Came in the Spring.” Even the syrupy strains of a shamelessly sentimental song like 1950s pop idol Eddie Fisher’s “Christmas Eve in My Hometown” can make you yearn for the darnedest things: a particular December from childhood, grandmother’s cookies, an imagined past in which all tender moments were enhanced by the contributions of an unseen choir.
But the past haunts us, too. Greil Marcus hears “deadly fatalism,” “terror” and the “specter of the pogrom” in legendary cantor Yossele Rosenblatt’s “Yevonim,” and after listening to the scratchy, ethereal recording from 1916, it’s hard to disagree with him. In it, a far-off choir is suddenly joined by Rosenblatt’s improbably clear tenor as he and the other singers seem to reach through time to tell us something, “something they are not sure will make it to the future.” Marcus identifies them as the “specter of the specter,” the “dead standing in for the dead who will follow them” in a pogrom. Exactly why the Holocaust seems to loom over a song about oil burning for eight days is difficult to describe, but Rosenblatt’s beseeching cries are enough to take your breath away.
And if you listen closely, you’ll find eerie moments on the Christmas disc, too. When Eddie Cantor sang “The only thing I want for Christmas / is just to keep the things that I’ve got” in 1939, could he have known just how precious those things really were? Knowing what was to come — and what had already begun in Europe — adds poignant urgency to what was once a run-of-the-mill anti-commercial holiday message: The things that matter don’t come “tied with ribbons, or wrapped in cellophane.” Even now, as we fret over Hanukkah bushes and debate whether to let the kids open presents on all eight nights, this is one forgotten Jewish-Christmas song that might be due for a revival.
Eileen Reynolds is a frequent contributor to the Forward.