News and Views on Jews and Music

Paul Wieder photo 2013

Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!

News and Views on Jews and Music

What’s Jewish about… Opera?

 Permanent link

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is debuting a new work about the Holocaust this season. Titled The Passenger, it has an innovative set. An upper level of the stage is the deck of a 1960s ocean liner on which a woman, formerly a death-camp worker, thinks she recognizes another passenger as one of her victims. The stage itself, below, shows incidents at the camp, in flashback.

The link between the worlds of Jewish music and opera is a strong one. Synagogue cantors like Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, and Joseph Schmidt (their first names are linked with cantorial performances, last names with operatic ones) often graced opera stages, aweing audiences with their sonorous tones.

Many opera composers have been Jewish, too, including: Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), Jacques Offenbach (born Jacob), Anton Rubinstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold,  Fromental Halevy, and Darius Milhaud; even Moses Mendelssohn tried his hand at opera.

American Jewish opera composers include George Gershwin (whose Porgy and Bess is also in the current Lyric season), Leonard Bernstein, Steve Reich… and Phillip Glass, whose Einstein on the Beach was inspired by that Jewish physicist.

As to the operas themselves, Jewish stories have long been part of the subject matter. A major source of operatic stories has been the Torah itself. The stories of Adam, Cain and Abel,

Noah (twice- once each by Halevy and Donizetti), The Tower of Babel, Abraham (by Reich), Joseph, Moses (by Rossini), and Aaron (by Schoenberg) have all been made into operas.

Many stories that take place after the Five Books of Moses have been opera-ized as well, and by some of the form's greatest artists: David and Jonathan, King Saul, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (by German-Jewish Hermann Salomon Mosenthal), Jephtha (Meyerbeer's first opera), Samson and Delilah (by Camille Saint-Saëns), The Maccabees (by Rubinstein and Mosenthal), Queen Esther (by American Jewish composer Hugo Weisgall), and stories from the books of Daniel and Jeremiah (Nabucco, by Verdi)

France's Halevy wrote what must be the opera with the most Jewish title: The Jewess. In it, a Jewish woman falls for a non-Jewish prince. It's set in the Middle Ages; no, it doesn't end well.

The Milken Jewish Archive has two volumes with excerpts from Jewish-American operas on Old World themes. The first volume has parts of The Golem (Abraham Ellstein) and The Dybbuk (David Tamkin), as well as tales of Chelm (Robert Strassberg). The second has Gimpel the Fool (David Schiff, based on I.B. Singer's story) and Weisgall's Esther. More recently, Israeli composer Shulamit Ran has composed an opera on the dybbuk tale as well.

The main characters of the famous opera Die Fledermaus are named von Eisenstein, so there is some speculation as to whether those characters are Jewish… and given their negative portrayal, if the opera is therefore anti-Semitic.

A more recent one that has been almost unanimously condemned as such is the 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer. It details the events leading to the 1985 death of wheelchair-bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer, thrown overboard off of his cruise ship by hijacking PLO terrorists. It debuted in 1991, and recently made the news when the Met this year cancelled its simulcast of the opera. While the author says his work “accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder,” the victim’s daughters feel it “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.” According to The New Yorker, the opera “sparked outrage in onlookers who felt that it unduly favored the Palestinian point of view.”

Klinghoffer was the work of John Adams (the still-living one), as was the 2005 Dr. Atomic, the tale of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the Jewish physicist who oversaw the Manhattan Project, i.e. the making of the atom bomb. (Einstein has an opera and so does Oppenheimer… so where is Feynman's?)

And who knows which other operas will be revealed to have Jewish connections;  a recent Tablet article discussed the Jewish origins of one of the most beloved and acclaimed operas of all: Don Giovanni.

What's Jewish about opera? Maybe we should just ask an expert.

When is Kid’s Day? Every day!

 Permanent link

We just had Mother's Day, and Father's Day is coming up. So my almost-4-year-old asked when Kid's Day was. Yeah, he likes opening gifts- I wonder where he got that?

When I get him new music, I often get him albums by artists who do not generally focus on kids' music. I have this huge list of adult-oriented artists who have released kids albums, and in looking it over- no huge surprise- I see that many of the songwriters are Jewish:

Carole King: Really Rosie
A classic. This all-time great songwriter took some of the works of Maurice Sendak- the Jewish kids' author best known for Where the Wild Things Are- and made a whole musical out of them, with a Lower East Side pre-teen diva as the narrator. The songs teach the alphabet, counting, months… and caring. Sendak later turned Peter and the Wolf into Pincus and the Pig… to teach kids about klezmer music!

Peter Himmelman: My Best Friend is a Salamander
The definition of an underappreciated songwriter. Himmelman has also released a series of great, silly-sweet kids albums: My Lemonade Stand, My Fabulous Plum, My Green Kite, and My Trampoline. Pick one- you can't go wrong.

David Grisman and Jerry Garcia: Not for Kids Only
Garcia, the late leader of the Grateful Dead, was not Jewish. But his longtime collaborator, mandolin virtuoso Grisman, is. Here, they run through a set of traditional acoustic folk songs sure to encourage sing-alongs on car rides.

Harry Connick Jr.: Songs I Heard
The title should really be Songs I Heard from Movie Musicals, because these are from Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, Annie, and Willy Wonka-all of which had Jewish songwriters. Your kids can graduate to the When Harry Met Sally… soundtrack later.

Lisa Loeb: Catch the Moon
Loeb's high, charming voice is a natural for children's music. This is a collection of folksy perennials like "Oh! Susanna" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain," plus some tunes in Spanish and French. She followed this album with the camp-song collection Camp Lisa, which featured Steve Martin on banjo. She's even got kids' books out now.

Dan Bern: Two Feet Tall 
Bern sets aside his cynicism and brings his aw-sucks sensibility to a series of kids songs that range from the ridiculous- "Donkey to Lunch"- to the sublime- "Watchin' Over You." You can download the 38 songs for only 89 cents each… or the whole shebang for $8.00.

Leonard Bernstein: Children's Classics
What better way to introduce children to the glories of the classical canon than by letting one of the greatest conductors of all time do it for you? Clips of his Young People's Concerts are also on YouTube.

Peter Paul & Mary: Peter Paul & Mommy 
Peter Yarrow is the Jewish third of this ecumenical folksinging triumvirate. Their offerings here are traditionals, and a tune by Gilbert & Sullivan, but mostly their contemporaries Tom Paxton and Shel Silverstein. Plus three by Peter, including his signature tune, "Puff the Magic Dragon" (which is about a dragon kite, people!)

Neil Sedaka: Waking Up is Hard to Do
(Yes, his name is Sephardic for "tzedakah.") The title track is a parody of his early rock classic "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"… and some of the tunes are parodies of his other hits- "Where the Toys Are," "Lunch Will Keep Us Together." Great for a grandparental visit.

Other kids' compilations of songs by adult artists have some Jewish musicians on them as well:
For Our Children: Bob Dylan, Bette Midler
In Harmony: Carly Simon, Bette Midler again, Wendy Waldman
Simply Mad About Mouse: Billy Joel, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bolton
Songs from the Street: Paul Simon, Madeline Kahn
Unexpected Dreams: singing actors Scarlett Johansson, Marissa Jaret Winokur, and Victor Garber 

Lastly, some great Jewish songwriters have simply written songs to their own kids:
Paul Simon: "St. Judy's Comet," "Father and Daughter"
Bob Dylan: "Lord, Protect My Child" (here performed by Susan Tedeschi)
Billy Joel: "Goodnight, My Angel"
Randy Newman: "Memo to My Son"
Peter Himmelman: "Raina"

Jewish people love music, and we love our kids, and we want our kids to love music. And Jewish musicians are no different in that!

It’s festival season!

 Permanent link

Chicago is the place to be for Jewish music in May, June and July. There is almost too much good stuff coming up- that should be our biggest problem!

IsraFest/Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival May 6-17
The second Israeli Jazz & (now) World Music Festival kicks off on May 6 with world-music sensation Mika Karni in free celebrations at Daley Plaza and the Chicago Cultural Center. A total of eight artists will perform at nine venues, and many of the shows are free, including: Reut Regev (Chicago Cultural Center); Hadar Noiberg (Old Town School of Folk Music); and Mattan Klein (Beth Shalom and Temple Sholom). City Winery then hosts Keren Ann and Avishai Cohen. Last up are Idan Raichel (Auditorium Theater debut) and Anat Cohen (Green Mill). [The 2014 Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival is presented by the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.]

The Greater Chicago Jewish Festival, June 8
This juggernaut of a festival, with attendance touching the 40,000 mark, comes by in every even-numbered year. This year, the ridiculously talented (and also just plain ridiculous) Peter Himmelman is the headliner. Local hero Edon Pinchot will be there, and because this year the Festival is part of IsraFest, Israeli acts Yemen Blues and Maya Johanna will perform. Also: Rabbi Joe Black, Banjos and Bagels, Mishkan… and Chicago's own Kol Sasson, Listen Up!, Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, and Ed Holstein… plus Tracy Friend, Joel Frankel, Sheldon Low for "der kinder." [JUF is a sponsor.]

Ravinia:
Following in the footsteps of Jewish violin virtuosi Yacha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuin and Isaac Stern are four of today's top violinists, all gracing the Ravinia stage this season: Pinchas Zukerman, with his ChamberPlayers, Jun 21; Peter Serkin with the Orion ensemble, July 23; Joshua Bell, July 26; and Itzhak Perlman (with Yitzchak Meir Helfgot) Aug 18. Plus, on piano, Misha & Cipa Dichter, Sep 11.

Jazzing up the Independence Day night will be Dave Koz, July 4, soon followed by Mandy Patinkin, July 6. Alt-rock is represented by Jewish frontmen Adam Durtiz, whose band Counting Crows performs on July 14; and scion of Zion Jakob Dylan, leading his Wallflowers (on a double bill with Train) Aug 22-23. Equally regarded for his insighful originals and clever covers is Matt Nathanson, July 21.

Even when the musicians aren't Jewish, the composers might be. That's the case with West Side Story, the collaboration of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, shown on giant screens on the lawn, with the CSO performing the soundtrack live, on July 17-18. A tribute to Lerner & Loewe- whose Broadway hits include My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon, is performed on July 20. And Gershwin's opus Rhapsody in Blue soars again on July 29.

2014 looks like a banner year in Chicago for both Jewish music and Jews in music. Better get your tickets now!

10 famous Jewish women who inspired songs

 Permanent link

The original Muses were Greek goddesses, but some recent muses have been Jewish women. Here are 10 famous and semi-famous Jewish women, presented alphabetically, and the songs they have inspired. (Is this "Jewish music"? Well, it's music about Jews, anyway…).

1. Rosanna Arquette: "Rosanna," by Toto/"In Your Eyes," by Peter Gabriel

The first of these songs was written by David Paich on behalf of fellow Toto member Steve Porcaro, who was the one dating her. But Gabriel did write the other one for her while he himself was dating her. Appropriately, the song is perhaps most famous for serenading-in the movie Say Anything…- another Jewish actress, Ione Skye.

2. Carrie Fisher:"Hearts and Bones" by Paul Simon 

Simon, in fact, wrote many songs about the former Princess Leia during and after their brief marriage. This song is off an album also called Hearts and Bones; it's the one just before Graceland, and both albums are pretty much all about their marriage and divorce. In the opening line, "One and one-half wandering Jews," he means himself… and Fisher, whose dad, singer Eddie Fisher, was Jewish.

3. Alyson Hannigan:"Alyson Hannigan" by Juvenile Wreck/"This One Time" by The Malcolm Effect.

The first one is obviously about her. The second is based on a line her American Pie character memorably says… but still.

4. Carole King:"Oh! Carol" by Neil Sedaka

Neil Sedaka (whose name is a form of the word "tzedakah") was a big deal back the day, but Carole's songs have proven even more indelible. Sedaka and King did date in high school, and he later wrote this for her. She responded with "Oh, Neil," even though by that time she was married to her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. Neil, ever the gent, gave that song to his bosses at the Brill Building… who liked it so much they hired Goffin and King as songwriters, and the rest is major musical history.

5. Zoe Kravitz:"Flowers for Zoe" by Lenny Kravitz

In this case, they have the same last name because Lenny is her dad. This is a lullaby he wrote to her when she was a baby. He's a huge Hendrix fan, so it's no accident this sounds a lot like "Little Wing."

6. Linda McCartney:"Maybe I'm Amazed" and "My Love" by Paul McCartney 

Also "We Got Married" and "Golden Earth Girl." When she was just six, though, her dad's client (her dad was an entertainment attorney) named Jack Lawrence wrote "Linda" for her. It was recorded by Buddy Clark, by Jan & Dean and by Perry Como.

7. Marilyn Monroe:"Candle in the Wind" by Bernie Taupin and Elton John

Hey, she counts- she converted when she married Arthur Miller! The song came out in 1973, but it wasn't a huge hit until this live version, done in 1986. And it was a hit again in 1997, reworded for use at Princess Di's funeral. (Elton was dressed like Beethoven in the video because for this concert, he was backed by a full orchestra… so what else should he wear?)

8. Sally Oren:"Sally, Sally" and "Young Girl Sunday Blues,"by Jefferson Airplane

Jeffrey Goldberg reports in The Atlantic that Sally Oren- the wife of Michael Oren, an Israeli ambassador to the US- had a free-range adolescence that led her to meeting and even befriending: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, promoter Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and the members of Jefferson Airplane. Groovy!

9. Gwyneth Paltrow:"Moses," by Coldplay 

Coldplay's frontman, Chris Martin, is her husband; he wrote to her: "Like Moses has power over the sea/ So you've got power over me." Aww! Also, they named their son Moses. Passover seders at their house must be very musical!

10. Natalie Portman:"I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman" by K-Os ("chaos").

Speaking of Star Wars princesses… You might also count the rap Adam Samberg wrote for her for an SNL sketch (warning: there is a TON of cursing and other… stuff here). And the Aussie Jewish-punk bank YIDcore routinely drops her name into songs, since their lead singer has a huge crush on her.

Also, these women became famous because of their songs…

11. Sharona Alperin:"My Sharona" by The Knack

She was the Sharona, and the "my" was Knack frontman Doug Fieger. She was 16 at the time. Oy. The song is still raising eyebrows. When it was discovered on President George W. Bush's iPod that, no less than The New York Times noted: " "My Sharona," [is] the 1979 song by the Knack that Joe Levy, a deputy managing editor at Rolling Stone in charge of music coverage, cheerfully branded 'suggestive if not outright filthy.'"

12. Sara Dylan:"Sara," by Bob Dylan

While Yoko Ono and Edie Brickell (Paul Simon's current wife) were famous in their own rights, can anyone name Bob Dylan's wives? Yeah, so she goes here. Shockingly, not all of Dylan's songs are on YouTube, so this is a cover by a tribute band... from Spain.

Clearly, there is just something about Jewish women that inspires some of the best songwriters, all the way back to the writer of Song of SongsKing Solomon. OK, so that song's from Proverbs. But all of Song of Songs is inspired by a woman known only as "The Shumalite," perhaps the earliest example of a Jewish woman as a musician's muse.

Chicago a cappella’s musical “migrations”

 Permanent link

When we think of "Jewish a cappella," we think of campus groups like The Maccabeats. Or perhaps synagogue choirs on the High Holidays.

Chicago a cappella is both, and more. Their new concert series, "Melodic Migrations: Global Jewish Music," shines a spotlight on lesser-known, often ancient, Jewish a cappella music from around the world- from Europe to South America, from Yemen to Uganda, Iran to-of course-Israel (dates and locations below). There will even be a Yiddish tango, and other surprises.

Founder and Artistic Director Jonathan Miller prepared this compelling and fascinating look at Jewish global fusion. But Jewish music has been part of his life since he was a child, and Yossele Rosenblatt's "Kaddish" was on the program of his ensemble's very first concert.

For two decades now, this Lakeview-based ensemble has performed everything from spirituals and sacred works by classical composers… to folk songs and madrigals. Plus pop songs from before jukeboxes to after iTunes.  "No one was doing that mix of music," explained Miller, as to what inspired his formation of the ensemble initially.

The ensemble performs a surprising amount of Jewish material, including some entirely Jewish concerts. One of their first to feature Jewish material, in 1996, was titled: "Christians and Jews in the Renaissance." In 2012, it was "Genius in the Synagogue: A Musical Portrait of Max Janowski." It was Janowski, in fact, who gave Miller his professional debut.

Last October, Chicago a cappella celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert pulling from all of its influences- including the Jewish song "Lo Yisa Goy" by Chicago composer Stacy Garrop, but also everything from Rufus Wainwright songs to a medley from the musical Spring Awakening.

The majestic music of the High Holidays was presented twice, once in 2007 and again in 2011. Called "Days of Awe and Rejoicing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music," it was released on CD.

Miller is quick to praise his versatile singers, who come from many diverse musical backgrounds: choral music, opera, gospel, and Early Music. Most also sing in the CSO Chorus, and in their auditions for him, they must prove their abilities to both solo and harmonize. "They are just the finest," Miller said, "I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with such a dedicated team." The ensemble even coaches a youth-chorus workshop.

Whether your taste runs toward Straight No Chaser, the King's Singers, or the Western Wind Ensemble, Chicago a cappella sings your favorite flavor of a cappella.

Melodic Migrations: Global Jewish Music

Saturday, 2/15, 8:00 p.m., Nichols Concert Hall, Evanston
Sunday, 1/16, 4:00 p.m., K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation, Chicago
Saturday, 2/22, 8:00 p.m., Congregation Beth Shalom, Naperville
Sunday, 2/23, 4:00 p.m., West Suburban Temple Har Zion, River Forest.

A glossary of Jewish music terms

 Permanent link

Jewish music, like all fields, has its jargon, and perhaps the start of a new year is a good time to go over some key terms. Also, I will miss the Song Leader Boot Camp this year, held on Jan. 19-20 at Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, but perhaps attendees will find this helpful:

Ba'al toke'ah: Hebrew for "master of the sound." A shofar blower.

Badchan: At a Jewish wedding, the jester/emcee who "gets the party started."

Bentch: Yiddish, "bless." Especially, to say Birkat HaMazon/Grace After Meals.
Bentch licht: light Shabbat candles.

Bulgar: A klezmer melody influenced by Bulgarian music.

Camp song: A simple, short song, taught and sung at summer camp, with a guitar.

Cantillation: The sing-song melody used when reading the Torah or other scriptures.

Cantor: Leader of the prayer service. Some cantors are ordained.

Chazan/Hazzan: Hebrew for "cantor."

Daven: Yiddish for "pray."

Duchan: To bless the entire congregation. Only Kohanim are permitted to do so.

Freylach: Yiddish for "festive." Also, a fast klezmer piece.

Geshrai: Yiddish for "shout."

HaTikvah: Hebrew for "The Hope," this is the title of Israel's national anthem.

Kavanah: Intention, intensity. When you mean it, you "have kavanah."

Kley Zemer: Hebrew for "vessel of song." A musical instrument.

Klezmer: From "kley zemer," the music of the Ashkenazic, Yiddish culture. The main instruments are the violin and clarinet.

Kumzitz: Yiddish for "come, sit!" Informal gathering, often including a sing-along.

Kvitsch: Yiddish for "sharp yelp." Can be made by a person or, say, a clarinet.

Ladino: The Hebrew-Spanish blend-language of the Sephardic Jews. It is to Sephardim what Yiddish is to Ashkenazic Jews. 

Leibedik(eh): Yiddish for "heart-like." Full of emotion.

Liturgical: Related to, or based in, prayers.

Machzor: Prayer book for Jewish holidays.
Madrich(a):  (Fe)male camp counselor.

Melamed: non-ordained Jewish-studies teacher, including bar/bat mitzvah tutor.

Melevah Malkah: Hebrew for "escorting the queen," a meal held after Shabbat, to bid farewell to the Shabbat Queen.

Mizrachi: Hebrew for "Eastern." Of Middle-Eastern origin.

Niggun: Wordless, melodic, ecstatic chant sung repeatedly for meditative effect.

Nusach: Version of a prayer service, usually Ashkenazic or Sephardic.

Od ha-pa'am!:  Hebrew for "Further, an instance." In English: "One more time!" The Yiddish version is "Noch a'mol!"

Oneg Shabbat: Hebrew for "Shabbat delight." A party on Shabbat afternoon.

Ot azoy!: Yiddish for "Just like that!" In English, "You got it! Keep going!"

Piyut: Hebrew for "hymn." The composer of one is a "piyetan."

Psalm 150: The final Pslam, notable for listing instruments used in the Holy Temple

Rabbotai!: Yiddish for "Ladies and Gentlemen!" In English, "Hey, listen up!"

Ru'ach: Hebrew for "wind" and also "spirit." Enthusiasm.

Schpiel: A play, long story, or sales pitch. Purimschpiel: satirical Purim play.

Shaliach Tzibur: Hebrew for "messenger of the congregation." Cantor, often a non-ordained one or volunteer. Abbrebiated in Hebrew as "schatz."

Sheket!: Hebrew for "quiet." Used to demand attention before an announcement.

Sher: Yiddish for "shears." A klezmer dance involving scissor-kicks.

Shir: Hebrew for "song." Used to denote a modern song, as opposed to a zemer.

Shiron: Songbook or set of songsheets.

Siddur: From the Hebrew for "order" (same as "Seder"). Jewish prayerbook.

Tehilim: Psalms. King David wrote most of them, for prayers in the Holy Temple.

Trop: Note-sets used for Torah reading that give it its sing-song sound.

Zemer: Hebrew for song. Used to denote a traditional or ancient song.

Zmirot: Songs, especially those sung at the table after Shabbat meals.

Under-known Jewish songwriters: Dan Bern

 Permanent link

His full last name is "Bernstein," and that's also what he calls his band.

Dan Bern is one of the most bluntly honest of all songwriters, using the right words to mean what he has to say. If he were a movie, he would absolutely be "Rated R." (He does have a kids' album, though, plus a new Rated G Hannukah Songs EP for download.)

Yes, Bern is honest about relationships and sex: "Don't test my love/ Maybe I don't love you all that much." He is honest about social issues and politics: "I would never be so dumb/ To say they stole the election/ They bought the damn thing, fair and square."

And he is honest about religion, including his own Jewish one. The very first song on his debut EP, Dog Boy Van, is "Jerusalem," and it's about Jerusalem Syndrome: "Time to reveal myself/ I am the messiah… Now that I've told you/ I feel a great weight has been lifted/ Dr. Nussbaum was right."

"God Said No," (it starts at the 1:30 mark) on New American Language, is about a conversation with God: "Send me back in time/ Let me find/ The one they call Hitler/ I will bring him down… Obliterate his memory/ God said, 'No.'" Interestingly, God doesn't give His reason as changing the course of history, but that Bern would not follow through: "You would get caught up/ In theory and discussion/ You would let your fears/ Delay and distract you/ You would make friends/ You would take a lover." Finally, God explains, "Time belongs to me/ Time's my secret weapon/ My final advantage." Bern realizes: "Now was all I had."

Then comes the song "Toledo," which deals with American hypocrisy, portending to be so very religious and spiritual while really being commercialized and xenophobic: "Sitting in the Church/ Of the Holy McDonald's… I make my sacred offering/ And I dip my hands in Pepsi/ Sailed off to Virginia/ And expelled all the Jews." This may be a reference to General Order 11, in which then-General Ulysses S. Grant tried to do exactly that, during the Civil War. "And I'm closer to God than I've ever been before," Bern continues, "Painting Karl Marx on every door/ Groucho Marx on every door."

On The Swastika EP, Bern tries to reclaim that sullied symbol: "The Chinese had it for 20,000 years/ The Nazis took it and made it spell tears/ Now I'm decorating my house with it/ My little swastika/ I'm taking it back/ It's not yours anymore/ It's mine now… (it) Stands for Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, & Chico."

Another song here, that is entirely Jewish, is "Lithuania," about his family's Holocaust story:

"I got one foot in the black-and-white two-dimensional ghosts of Lithuania/ And the other foot in sunny California…  8,000 miles from Lithuania. And if I could escape/ By driving further then I would, but it doesn't get me anyplace new."

He copes with his anger by reveling in Jewish America's contributions to the world: "Sometimes I want to dance on Hitler's grave/ And shout out: 'Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Cohen, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Harry Houdini, Sandy Koufax!'" He continues,  "I say Kristallnacht is over!/ The only broken glass tonight/ Will be from wedding glasses shattered under heels."

Then it gets more personal: "I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh/ Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were all shot/ And know I must go on/ It would be cowardly to stop/ It would be an aberration to do anything else."

On My Country II, we have the song "Sammy's Bat," a reference to Sammy Sosa: "There's a time for playing by the rules and a time to cork your bat." The song is about a dream, in which: "Abraham and Jesus and Mohammed all came down/ Heard there was a meeting down in Bat Sheba town/ Abraham was detained, his passport not in order/ (They) said, 'You got no papers to get across the border."'

On Breathe, the song "Past Belief" is a prayer during a bout of insomnia: "Lord/ Show me a sign… And I'm willing to go on faith/ But I'm past belief."

His most recent release is the family-friendly Hannukah Songs. He starts off with songs about the familiar elements of the holiday, then takes a typical Dan Bern turn with "Waffle House Hannukah," about a Jewish trucker who celebrates Hannukah on the road by varying his hash browns eight ways.  

There are many, many more Dan Bern songs. The Dan Bern Archive has nearly 500, and it is updated through his current album, Drifter. The unpublished songs include Jew from Kentucky, Dan Bern's Christmas Song, and even Lithuania II.

Bern bars no holds, cuts no slack, and leaves no sin unstoned, stoning himself most of all. Listening to a whole album all at once can be upsetting, sometimes even unnerving, but is ultimately cathartic. If you like the comedy of Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, the novels of Philip Roth and Henry Miller, and the early years of Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, Dan Bern is for you.

These songs are the truth. And Dan Bern is one of the few good men who can handle it.

CONNECT WITH US
JUF NEWS EXPRESS

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.

Illinois Holocaust Museum Become a Docent
Chicago Loop Synagogue box ad
 Sept 2014

Want news of Chicago, Israel and the Jewish world in your mailbox each month? Subscribe to the print JUF News, by making a contribution to the Jewish United Fund.

Claims Conference