Last-Minute Gifts for the Last of Eight Nights

By Forward Staff

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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FOR THE MUSIC LOVER

Just in time for Chanukah, the first lady of American Jewish song has come out with a new CD that wraps the holiday spirit in the rocking beat that her legions of fans have come to love: “Light These Lights: Debbie Friedman Sings Chanukah Songs for the Whole Family” (Sounds Write Productions, www.soundswrite.com). An American original, Friedman’s unique blend of mystical language, biblical imagery and foot-tapping, folk-rock melodies has entered the contemporary synagogue liturgy and made her this country’s best-selling Jewish music act for decades. On this, her 19th disc, Friedman and her band serve up a pleasing mix of traditional holiday standards, contemporary Israeli and American Chanukah songs and Friedman’s own now-classic originals that can serve as a holiday primer and family singalong guide or simply an at-home Debbie Friedman concert. The disc’s 14 tracks range from “Maoz Tzur” and “Mi Yímaleil” to Friedman’s “Not by Might” and “The Latke Song,” plus Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle” and a soulful rendition of the traditional blessings.

* * *

Fans of the Rechnitzer Rejects have been waiting 11 years for the follow-up to their seventh album, which came out in 1992. The wacky, Brooklyn-based chasidic band, led by the British-born Martin Davidson, is best known for such side-splitting send-ups as “I’m Getting Maftir in the Morning” and the unforgettable “Sitting in the Shvitz,” sung to the tune of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Their newest offering, “The Revival of the Rechnitzer Rejects, Volume 8” (Sameach Music, 2002), is something of a disappointment, with too little of their trademark zaniness and too much earnest exhortation to piety. At their best, though, the Rechnitzers are worthy heirs to the madcap tradition of Mickey Katz and Spike Jones, and those who aren’t fans yet should use this opportunity to get acquainted with their classic material. Start either with their 1995 “Best of” album or, if you want to get seriously silly, with Volume 3, which includes “Sitting in the Shvitz,” and Volume 4, featuring “Stayin’ a Levi,” “Shake, Shukkel and Bowl” (how you spend Sukkot in the Catskills) and “Balabustas” (“Who you gonna call?”) You’ll end up buying the whole set. They’re available in CD or cassette from www.mostlymusic.com.

— FORWARD STAFF

FOR THE HIPSTER CLOTHES HORSE

Know a kvetch who’s never satisfied with any Chanukah gift? Or a yenta who’s too busy meddling in other people’s affairs to buy herself a present? This holiday season, the Los Angeles-based rabbinical offspring sisters Daniella, Nina and Myla — daughters of Rabbi Jerry Cutler — want to help these and other shayna punims, mameles and schmoozers like them with their trendy line of yidishkayt-inspired cotton tees, tanks and undies called (natch) Rabbi’s Daughters.

Featured in hipster boutiques like Fred Segal in Los Angeles and in upscale shops like Henri Bendel in New York, the popular duds have been spotted on Jews and non-Jews alike. Celebs Kelly Osbourne and Christina Aguilera each snapped up the shiksa shirt, while Debra Messing’s wardrobe person purchased three different tees for the “Will & Grace” star. Fun, to be sure, these schmattes also possesses a culturally celebratory side. “We’ll be walking down the street,” Daniella said, “and a Yiddish-speaking old man from Eastern Europe will read our shirts and become so proud!” They’re going fast, so log onto www.rabbisdaughters.com for your pick of the bunch.

* * *

Hankering to make a sartorial statement that doesn’t involve a crocodile or a Polo horse stitched onto the front pocket of your shirt? Jewish Jeans is a hip new way to be seen and be heard. The designer clothing company offers a plethora of denim designs, hats and cotton tees embroidered with Jewish-informed social and political messages. Company co-founders Daniel Wolt and Steven Verona combine a heavy dose of ethnic pride with political awareness to create clothing that says, “I’m Jewish and proud of it!” You might choose to dangle your keys from a “Pursue Peace” key chain or perhaps flaunt a “Nice Jewish Boy” T-shirt. And of course, there’s the company’s signature blue jeans (currently on back order) with the Jewish Jeans logo. This writer’s favorite? The “Naughty Jewish Girl” baby-doll tee. To place an order, please call the Jewish Jeans hotline at 888-421-4644 or log onto www.jewishjeans.com.

— MALINA SARAH SAVAL

FOR THE SPORTS FAN

What self-respecting sports fan couldn’t recite at will the accomplishments of Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson? Yet far fewer seem to have paused to consider his namesake, the “Jewish Jackie.” According to B.P. Robert Stephen Silverman’s new book “The 100 Greatest Jews in Sports” (Scarecrow Press), it’s New York Giants second baseman Andy Cohen, who faced the unenviable task of succeeding Rogers Hornsby. Despite earning a No. 90 ranking from Silverman for his hitting prowess on opening day of the 1928 season, Cohen threw in the towel. It seems he couldn’t take the pressure that came along with his fans, who had a tendency to camp out on his lawn.

Silverman’s book overflows with did-you-know factoids and is as broad in its coverage as it is compact. Using an elaborate statistical method for ranking top athletes — baseball, swimming, basketball, soccer, auto racing and football — Silverman draws from his journalist past, offering up plenty of amusing anecdotes, first-hand correspondence and fodder for sports fans of any age inclined to argue about who belongs in the top 100.

— ARIEL ZILBER

FOR THE YOUNG READER

For those looking to evoke children’s laughter and Hebrew comprehension at the same time, Shari Dash Greenspan’s first children’s book, “Shemot Muzarim,” or “Strange Names” (2003, Urim Publications), is a good choice. If the meanings of Jewish names are to be taken literally, then shouldn’t a girl named Simcha always be happy, or Shira be singing or Yitzhak be making us laugh? Entirely in Hebrew (and without translation or transliteration), “Shemot Muzarim” gently pokes fun at popular Hebrew names whose literal meanings do not fit (lo mat’imim) those to whom they have been given.

Set in an Israeli kindergarten class as seen through the eyes of Yafa, the book — perfect for children 4 and older — includes colorful, pastel-like illustrations by Avi Katz, who cleverly depicts Yafa and her classmates, who do not live up to their names. Take Nadav, the boy who does not volunteer in class (l’hitnadev means to volunteer in Hebrew), or Sivan, the girl whose birthdays falls in the Jewish month of Elul, rather than the month of Sivan. “Shemot Muzarim” is an ideal gift for improving Hebrew skills or just bringing a smile to a child’s face.

* * *

The Festival of Lights seems an apt time to honor our late scholars worthy of the title “modern-day Maccabees.” Or N. Rose’s new biography, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: Man of Spirit, Man of Action” (Jewish Publication Society), is just that sort of book.

In attempting to enlighten young readers on such weighty topics as the Holocaust, chasidism, the civil rights movement and the plight of Soviet Jewry, the author retells the story of a traditional sage who, as spiritual heir of the Ba’al Shem Tov (the religious teacher and father of the chasidic movement), flees Europe’s conflagration for an America in search of its soul.

Like the great-great-grandfather for whom he was named, Heschel was beloved for his kindness and curiosity. His love of poetry, philosophy and art led him to leave the comforts of the shteibel for the unknown reaches of Eastern Europe’s secular culture. Despite his academic brilliance, Heschel found his faith in humankind tested repeatedly — at the hands of the Nazis, who expelled him from Germany, as well as the struggle for civil rights in his adopted homeland. Whether it was his alliance with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or his having the ear of President Kennedy, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s contributions would best be acknowledged by those who yearn to find the spark of God in these dark times.

— ARIEL ZILBER

FOR THE SUPPORTER OF ISRAEL

Last minute shoppers looking for gelt and dreidels shouldn’t shop at Rosebud. At this chic emporium selling strictly Israeli-made goods, there is nary a hamsa in sight. Instead, one can purchase trendy skirts from Israeli fashion designers and original artwork.

Owner Faye Penn was inspired to open the shop — modeled on the neighboring SoHo boutiques —after receiving compliments on her Jerusalem-bought hats. A former buyer for Macy’s, Penn said she thinks that the Israeli designers she stocks — Elaine Stoleru, Ginza and Sigal Dekel — appeal to Americans.

Prices range from a $55 T-shirt to a $690 embroidered evening skirt by Rina Chen, and sizes run from 2 through 16. There are buttery-soft leather journals and handbags, sterling-silver bracelets engraved with Hebrew expressions, ceramics, candles and soaps. And, of course, there’s a selection of 1920s-style hats and paintings by artists whose business has been affected by the intifada. “It’s my way of doing a little something for everyone,” Penn said of Rosebud as a vehicle for helping Israeli artisans.

For those looking to support Israel with their gift buys but are far from Rosebud’s SoHo address at 131 Thompson St. (646-602-1565), the Internet offers many options. “You can almost smell the odors of the shuk” brags www.keilu.com, which sells foods — seasoned bread crumbs, Elite chocolate and even Israeli sweet and sour sauce — and more traditional Judaica: challah boards, clothing and jewelry. At www.judaicastore.com, shoppers find all Ahava, including a men’s shaving line. Also available are olive IDF T-shirts, a shofar collection and 100%-wool tallit.

— RACHEL ZUCKERMAN

FOR THE YOUNG VIEWER

Mysterious earthquakes are devastating Pittsburgh. Rabbis are disappearing from their yeshiva classes. The very foundations of the world are crumbling. Sound hopeless? Then it’s a job for Agent Emes, the fearless yeshiva-boy-turned-crime fighter who battles to save the Jews from sin and thwart the evil schemes of the fiendish Dr. Lo-Tov of Aveiros International. In this half-hour kids’ video, the second outing for Emes, Lo-Tov (“No-Good”) and the gang, Aveiros (“Sins”) International is kidnapping teachers to prevent children from studying Torah and thus weaken the mystical foundations of the universe. Produced and directed by Leibel Cohen of the Pittsburgh-based Reel Jewish Entertainment, this pre-teen kabbalistic spy-thriller is a corny, low-budget production, and parents, especially the more worldly ones, may roll their eyes. But kids of every persuasion are likely to be smitten by its goofy earnestness; in our experience, they eat it up. “The Adventures of Agent Emes, Episode 2: Rabbi-napped” (2003) is available from Sameach Music, 1-888-3-SAMEACH, or directly from the producers at www.agent-emes.com.

Chanukah celebrates a rebellion and a miracle, but it’s also one of the best times of year for gathering and gift-giving. Even so, sometimes some people — procrastinators and the extremely busy — don’t get around to shopping for the last of the Eight Crazy Nights by the first lifting of the shamas. For those who find themselves without gifts to give and without a clue, here are a few suggestions.






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