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​.akosher​christ​mas​.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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