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Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah Songs

Monday, December 15, 2014 | Permalink

Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD is the author of A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press). Visit his web site and seasonal blog at www.akosherchristmas.org. He welcomes your own unique stories of being Jewish at Christmas for a new book of personal stories about this subject. You can email him at: jplaut@afrmc.org. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Here is a recent American tale of old wine in new vessels. Part of our national folklore reveals that Woody Guthrie, the iconic American folk troubadour and songwriter, composed Hanukkah songs. In a 2003 concert, the Klezmatics, a popular Grammy Award-winning Klezmer band, performed Hanukkah songs showcasing lyrics written from 1949 through the early 1950s by Woody Guthrie. The lyrics had laid fallow and long-forgotten in Guthrie’s archives until their discovery in 1998 by Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. Nora asked the Klezmatics to write original music for the lyrics, which fuses strains of Klezmer music with American folk and bluegrass. The 2006 album, “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka,” comprises many different songs, including “Happy, Joyous Hanuka” and “Hanuka Tree.” Two of the eight songs, “The Many And The Few” and “Hanuka Dance,” had lyrics and melodies penned entirely by Guthrie. The songs were in part biographical. Woody was married to Marjorie Mazia, a Jewish dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company who was the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, an activist and Yiddish poet. Nora remembers “For Hanukkah actually, we had a hat—we didn’t get presents—but we had a hat with different amounts of Hanukkah gelt, and every night we’d pick out five cents or twenty-five cents of gelt. My mother played piano, and we used to sing and dance every night.”*

At the 2003 debut concert with the Klezmatics at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, folk legend Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son and Nora’s brother, joked that as children they would dance “around the Hanukkah tree.” "Happy Joyous Hanuka" counts down each candle on the menorah (“Seven for the sons of Hannah that died/Six for kings and the tricks they tried/Five for the brothers Maccabee”), while “Hanuka Tree” has a lively simple melody (“Round and around my Hanukah tree/Round and around I go/Round and around my Hanukah tree/Because I love you so”). According to Nora, most of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs seem to have been written in November or December within five days of each other “because he had bookings in December for children’s Hanukkah parties in assorted Brooklyn community centers.” As was his wont, Woody would “write songs only for the gig a few days before and then go on to other songs for other gigs.” For the Guthrie family, a family of improvisers not of traditions and for whom the approach to religion was “all or none,” the tree was a “Christmas tree, a Hanukkah tree, and a holiday tree. It was a fluid thing!”

Indeed, the popularization of Woody Gutherie's Hanukkah songs by the Klezmatics demonstrates the vital role that music plays as an intrinsic cultural force contributing to the Americanization of this Jewish holiday, as it coexists with Christmas.

Joshua Eli Plaut is Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical and the Rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. He is an historian, photo-ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, and is also the author of Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983: Patterns of Jewish Communal Survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)

*Telephone interview with Nora Guthrie, August 17, 2011.

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What is That Song Playing in My Ear?

Thursday, December 13, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joshua Eli Plaut wrote about Hanukkah events in the NYC area. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Jews have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas. They have enhanced the national observance of Christmas by composing many of the Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. More secular than religious, these songs, among them Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Walter Rollins and Steve Fletcher’s “Frosty the Snowman,” and, most recently, Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” remind celebrants that Christmas belongs to all Americans who share in the spirit of patriotism, generosity, peace, and good will. Ironically, other Jews in the United States have developed strategies to downplay the significance of Christmas by composing poems and songs—in print, performance, and the media—that satirize and neutralize the religious nature of the holiday. Humorous songs and comedic performances offer outlets for the disenfranchised to vent disappointment over society’s fixation with the crass commercialization of Christmas.

Harboring an appreciation for music, I listened to many Hanukkah record albums and compact discs that introduced new songs to the public. This led to my discovering musical parodies of Christmas and Hanukkah that were recorded on specialty labels and eventually recreated on CDs, DVDs, and YouTube.

Check out the following:


Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available.


It's Hanukkah Time! Where's the Party?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Permalink

Last week, Joshua Eli Plaut wrote about Festivus and Jewish Santas. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Every December, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of Jewish celebrations taking place across the United States. This is a continuing testimony to what I document and espouse in my recently published book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish. We Jews can rejoice in Jewish ways beyond the Hanukkah festival and embrace the goodwill generated by Christmas to find Jewish meaning in the December holiday season.

Saturday night marked the first night of Hanukkah. Menorah lightings will abound in homes and in public places. I presided over the menorah lighting at East 35th and Park Avenue in New York City at 5:00PM. We were crammed onto the median with cars whizzing by! Exciting but a bit on the dangerous side. I had never officiated at the lighting of a menorah in a public space!

Just overhead was the ethereal spire of the Empire State Building glowingly lit in blue and white and wrapped in mist! As with everything of import, there is a story surrounding the Hanukkah lighting of the Empire State Building. In 1997, nine-year-old Mallory Blair Greitzer wrote a letter to the management of the Empire State Building in Manhattan requesting that the color of the building’s tower lights be changed in honor of Hanukkah. This request was steadfastly rejected on the basis that the management’s policy limited the lights to honor each religion on one day per year. (The landmark’s lights are blue and white for Israel Independence Day.) Upon receiving this answer, Mallory asked her parents if she was Israeli. They explained that she was not, which prompted Mallory to write a second letter to Leona Helmsley, the management company’s owner. Mallory explained that she was not Israeli and therefore wondered what this policy meant for her and the other Jews in the country who were not Israeli. Against the advice of her staff, Helmsley granted Mallory’s request. In celebration of Hanukkah in 1997, the Empire State Building was (and each year thereafter) set alight with the colors blue and white. Grass roots campaigning at its best!

In homes and apartments everywhere, the wafting smell of latkes cooking in oil will flood kitchens and hallways and sufganiyot will be plentiful. If you are looking for new and exciting events for Hanukkah, check out the following in the New York City area:

Major League Dreidel/Target Tops Tournament on December 13th at 8:00PM
(This one I have written about in
my book)
Created in 2007, Major League Dreidel has been described as an “amped-up Hanukkah party and battle royale.” Players compete for the longest dreidel spin. This year hosts the first doubles tournament. Register at info@majorleaguedreidel.com by Wednesday, December 12th. Proceeds of the event will benefit Playworks, a nonprofit whose mission is to end playground bullying. Even if you don’t register, take a look at the website and then head to Full Circle Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to watch the tournament.


Matisyahu Festival of Light
Matisyahu, formerly Hasidic but always remaining a reggae star, performs his annual Hanukkah concert on December 15th at 9:00PM at Terminal 5. Find more Festival of Light concert dates around the country here.

We also want to give a shout out to Jewmongous is Sean Altman!
Fabulously funny, Jewmongous is an irreverently comedic concert taking place on December 15th at 8:30PM at Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling, New York. NOTE: This should not be mistaken for the Jewmongous show at City Winery on December 25th (more to follow on that one). 

Don’t dismiss Santacon!
There are always a few Hanukkah Harry(s) and Mrs. Hanukkah Harry(s) amongst the thousands of Santas that throng and cavort around New York City. According to the website, the New York happening is on December 15th with information to be revealed the night before.

A Chanukah Charol
Comedian Jackie Hoffman reenacts her one-woman retelling of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol using a semi-autobiographical and very Jewish lens. December 8th-December 29th at 8:00PM, New World Stages.

Fourth Annual Latke Festival
Chefs from 16 local restaurants—including A Voce, Balaboosta and Veselka—compete for first place latke on Monday December 10th at 6:30PM at BAM Peter Jay Sharp Building. Taste and judge for yourself! Profits from ticket sales will be donated to the Sylvia Center for childhood nutrition.

Gail Simmons: Latke Sizzle
Chef Gail Simmons talks with James Beard Foundation executive vice president Mitchell Davis about latkes and other types of Jewish food to be followed by a latke tasting and vodka pairing. December 11th at 8:15PM at the 92nd Street Y.

The Big Quiz Thing’s Christmahanukwanzayear Spectacular
Noah Tarnow is host at this holiday-themed multimedia quiz show at 7:00PM on Tuesday, December 11th and Wednesday, December 12th, at Littlefield in Brooklyn.

Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available.

Festivus!

Thursday, December 06, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Eli Plaut wrote about Jewish Santas. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Festivus, the secular December holiday credited to a screenwriter of the 1990s television sitcom Seinfeld, grew in popularity beyond its television roots as a secular societal celebration that allowed participants to express their feelings and frustrations with the holiday season. Festivus parties take place across the United States, serving as magnets for younger generations of Americans, among them many Jews. The celebrants of Festivus have stripped the holiday season of any religious meaning, instead relying upon irony and parody to carry the day.

Festivus Chai! And at Whole Food’s no less! While rambling around the aisles of the Whole Foods at Union Square in Greenwich Village, my wife, son and I encountered an entire wall of Festivus Chai! According to its online marketing materials, Festivus Chai is a limited‐edition seasonal holiday chai made with real cocoa, holiday spices, and organic ingredients.

Made by Third Street, Inc., a beverage company in Colorado, 5% of the proceeds during the holiday season will be donated to the Whole Planet Foundation, a nonprofit which attempts to alleviate poverty through microloans in the third world. So there is a tzedakah component to the Festivus product.

Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available.

So You Want to Dress Up As Santa?!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012 | Permalink

Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available. He will be here blogging for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomenal of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!

In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!

Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an Orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.

Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: "Men makht a lebn—it’s a living."

The underpinnings for playing Santa Claus are myriad. Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians, or whether from a yearning to be a participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.

Purchase A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish here and visit the official website for the book here.