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. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
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 30 years!
Crossposted from Haaretz
“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism” says the sign that currently greets visitors to Bethlehem. It is a bit ironic, given its location next to checkpoints manned by armed soldiers wearing bulletproof vests.
How does one deal with such a siege? With a sense of humor: A cartoon now circulating on the Internet features a confused Santa Claus standing before the huge wall that bars the way to Bethlehem and mumbling “This thing isn’t on my maps.” Another cartoon shows the family of Baby Jesus, riding a donkey, being stopped by soldiers who want to search their possessions.
This was the feeling during the Christian festival of light, the holiday of renewal and optimism: a sense of siege in a city that is cut off from its surroundings by walls and checkpoints, with no one entering or leaving. A simple question to passersby about how to get to the Church of the Nativity prompted some bitterness from one: “You prohibit us from leaving the city, I can’t even travel to Jerusalem, and you Israelis roam around here freely and want to visit the churches!” She was raising her voice a bit, and we could only agree that her anger was justified.
The CD case to John Zorn’s first Christmas record, “A Dreamers Christmas,” comes as a sort of stocking. Reaching into the sleeve you’ll find, along with the CD, a sheet of stickers that could represent a new line of holiday-themed Giga Pets.
You might be tempted to over-think this album, with its cute and somewhat disturbing iconography, especially if you’ve come to expect music from Zorn more agitating than these lovely tracks. You shouldn’t. Zorn released this album through his own label, Tzadik, which puts out a steady stream of avant-garde recordings. And although he only served as producer and arranger here, this jazz album is as much Zorn’s brainchild as it is the Dreamers’, the band he assembled.
With Marc Ribot on guitar, Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, Joey Baron on drums, Jamie Saft on keyboards, Trevor Dunn on bass and Cyro Baptista on percussion, the Dreamers play catchy, riff-based music that reflects a wide range of styles: surf-rock, lounge, exotica, blues and straight-ahead jazz. They do this with an appealing earnestness that works wonderfully on a Christmas album.
Bah humbug! This is a trying month for those of us with sensitive ears. Which is worse: the saccharine “holiday” drivel saturating the airwaves, or the ceaseless griping of those cheerless snobs who make a winter sport of proclaiming their distaste for the season’s musical offerings?
It hardly takes a musical genius to wince at the slickly packaged yuletide schlock churned out by aging crooners and fresh-faced pop starlets in time for the shopping season each year. Yet I’ve never quite understood what it means to “hate Christmas music,” as so many broadly claim to do. Must one loathe hymns? (Insensitive!) Or detest Handel? (Impossible!) Is it enough to find Mannheim Steamroller profoundly embarrassing? (Doesn’t everyone?)
It’s easy to poke fun, but, as a recent concert by the New York Festival of Song emphatically proved, there is a good bit to love about Christmas music — especially when you approach it from a firmly Jewish perspective. It’s a pity that there were only two performances (November 29 and December 1 at the Kaufman Center) of “A Goyishe Christmas to You!,” because I’d challenge any Grinch to sit through this festive soiree and not emerge to find his undersized heart bursting with good tidings.
Wherever we go this time of year, we can’t escape hearing Christmas songs — be they on the radio, sung by carolers, or piped in as Muzak in stores and public spaces. It gets to the point at which it seems there is an audio loop of holiday classics running non-stop in our heads.
What many people may not realize is that many of these classic Christmas songs were written by Jews. For instance, “White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Silver Bells” was by Jay Livingston (born Jacob Levison). Given their authorship, it is not surprising that these songs were heavy on the cold weather, family and friends, and devoid of traditional Christian religious iconography.
Visitors to “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs 1910-1965,” a travelling exhibition showing until December 22 at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, can learn about these and other Jewish composers and lyricists who dominated on Broadway and in Hollywood during the middle decades of the 20th century. The exhibition, curated by David Lehman, was developed by Nextbook, Inc. and based on Lehman’s 2009 book of the same name.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
During the Q&A period of a December 1 event at the National Press Club titled “Why journalists must understand religion,” I asked Sally Quinn, founder and moderator of the Washington Post’s On Faith, if it was an advantage for reporters to approach the religion beat with insider knowledge of the faiths they are covering.
After all, I’ve found that some of my most creative stories have stemmed from a nuanced understanding of rabbinic and biblical Judaism, whether it was noticing Hebrew typos in William Blake’s paintings, mistranslations in the promotional materials of Hebrew inscriptions on rings in a gift shop at a mega-church or examining seemingly incongruous visual elements (like rabbit hunts or twisted pillars) in Jewish illuminated manuscripts and synagogues.
In the subculture of Christmas mixtapes Bill Adler is a very important Jew. For close to 30 years, the Manhattan music maven has put out “Xmas Jollies,” which just may be the most eclectic Yuletide mixtape on the planet. Adler has what musicians refer to as very big ears and for many of his 300 or so friends — Jews, as well as gentiles — his Jollies mixtape is a major part of the holiday soundtrack.
“My northern star in this has always been Santa Claus, not Jesus,” Adler told The Arty Semite.
A Detroit native who married outside the tribe (his wife is the TV chef and cookbook author Sara Moulton), Adler decided to create his own Christmas soundtrack in the early 1980s when he started celebrating the holiday with his in-laws in New England. The goal was to assemble an hour of music that would serve as an antidote to what he felt was “the oppressive corniness of the holiday.”
Hats off to New York Times music critic Ben Sisario for posting this rousing holiday song by one Sister Albertha Harris Lewis on his blog. Our question is, who is Sister Albertha Harris Lewis, anyway? One thing is for sure though: Anti-Semitism never sounded so good. Please share any info in the comments and listen to the song after the jump.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Those who, for one reason or another, stand outside the frame of Yuletide cheer often find their voices muted come Christmas. The singing of “Silent Night” leaves us, well, silent.
Not so for the protagonist of “The Loudest Voice,” one of the most celebrated of Grace Paley’s many singular contributions to American arts and letters.
In this short story, the young Shirley Abramowitz is recruited to play the voice of Jesus in her public school’s annual Christmas pageant. “They told me you had a particularly loud, clear voice and read with lots of expression. Could that be true?” inquires Mr. Hilton, who is in search of a “child with a strong voice, lots of stamina.” Flattered, Shirley agrees eagerly to become Jesus, if only for an afternoon. (“It was a long story, it was a sad story…. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man.”)