Yes, Jews wrote many favorite Christmas songs, from “Frosty the Snowman” to “O Holy Night.” Not so well known: Jewish artists performed a lot of them, too.
“Twas the Night Before Hanukkah,” a new CD set compiled by the Jewish music heritage nonprofit, the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, gives a nod to both Christmas and Chanukah at the same time.
The set includes 17 tracks that span the last 70 years — some songs familiar, others less known. Performers on the Chanukah disc include Woody Guthrie, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Flory Jagoda, Mickey Katz, the Klezmatics and Debbie Friedman.
Among the voices crooning and swinging on the Christmas disc are The Ramones, Theodore Bikel, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis Jr. and Benny Goodman.
The Idelsohn Society will mark the release of the CD with a last-night-of-Chanukah party at 9 p.m. Dec. 15 at the San Francisco club Brick and Mortar. Artists scheduled to perform include Sway Machinery, Lynn Burton (of Burton Sisters fame), Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson from the CD. Wise Sons Deli will provide holiday fare.
The project started as an effort to present a historical survey of Chanukah music, according to David Katznelson, a veteran record producer and one of the four principals — all volunteers — of the Idelsohn Society (along with Roger Bennett, Courtney Holt and Josh Kun).
Katznelson also happens to be the director of outreach and strategy at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. That’s his Clark Kent job. Music producing is his Superman job.
As Katznelson and his colleagues deepened their search for songs, they found noteworthy Chanukah recordings — some by well-known performers, others by little- known singers and educators, he recalls.
But the group was most struck by the abundance of Christmas music by Jewish composers and performers.
“The biggest Jewish names in music have at least one Christmas recording in their catalog,” according to the liner notes — a 31-page booklet replete with short essays, song notes and colorful reproductions of old Chanukah album covers. As a result, the society shifted the lens of its project to tell the full story “of how American Jews used music to negotiate their place in American national culture.”
“This was an amazing way to look at Jewish identity in the 20th century, through a combination of the history of Chanukah recordings side by side with Jews performing Christmas songs,” Katznelson affirms.
Some of the earliest Chanukah recordings appear in the 1920s and ’30s. By then, what had been a minor Jewish holiday through the later years of the 19th century had been transformed into a major celebration that was promoted by Jewish religious leaders and embraced by American Jewry.
The emergence of Chanukah recordings parallels that transformation, Katznelson suggests. In the postwar 1950s, besides traditional songs, livelier recordings were geared for children.
On the Chanukah CD, Katznelson points to “Yevonim” by Rosenblatt as the showstopper. A Ukraine native who immigrated to New York in 1912 at the age of 30, Rosenblatt became known in the U.S. as the greatest cantor of his time. The Yiddish song, about the Chanukah oil that burned for eight days, showcases Rosenblatt’s huge, haunting tenor.
Many will be surprised by Guthrie’s upbeat version of “Hanukkah Dance,” part of his 1940s collection of Jewish songs made for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records.
“Dreidel,” performed live by Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson, was recorded at a pop-up Chanukah record store concert hosted last year in San Francisco by the Idelsohn Society.
On the Christmas CD, Katznelson is most drawn to Theodore Bikel’s little-known 1967 recording of “Sweetest Dreams Be Thine.” The beloved Jewish singer and actor performs the Christmas song moving between Hebrew and English.
“It’s the quintessential track of the whole compilation,” Katznelson says. “It’s just Chanukah and Christmas, side by side, a perfect mishmash.”
Katznelson says the society hopes the music conveys a deeper sense of Jewish history while raising questions that provoke conversation about the meaning of the holiday music.
Some may hear familiar songs in a new perspective, he adds. “This is music that is usually in the background. We’re bringing it to the foreground.”
“Twas the Last Night of Hanukkah” CD release party, 9 p.m. Dec. 15, Brick and Mortar Music Hall, 1710 Mission St., S.F. $15-$18. www.brickandmortarmusic.com
“Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights” ($17.99, www.idelsohnsociety.com)