This is the 11th installment of the ever-popular Chanukah gift-giving guide. Special for this year—some new CDs that actually have Chanukah as their theme:
Mama Doni— Chanukah Fever
One of the best Chanukah albums to come along in quite a while. Mama Doni (rhymes with “Bonnie”) has the imagination of a 5-year-old and the energy to match. The material is all (and quite) original, and based in many song styles, although she prefers reggae and country. The title track is disco-funk, followed by “Latke Man,” who might be the cousin of the Boogie-Woogie Bagel Boy from Avenue B. There are also two outright parodies, “Funky Gold Menorah,” (based on Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina,”) and the “La Vida Dreidel.” Doni has an upbeat, engaging style, and the production values are tip-top (tip-dreidel?). This is the kids’ album you’ll find yourself playing again after dropping the kids off.
Cantor Deborah Jacobson—Chanukah Live
Like the impossibly talented high school on Glee, Temple Ahavat Shalom in Florida is full of musicians and singers. Here, they present many of the favorites, both traditional and contemporary. They put a new “spin” on “I Have a Little Dreidel,” with a doo-wop version. Cantor Jacobson’s own composition, “Light the Lights of Chanukah,” fits right beside the Debbie Friedman and Peter Yarrow standards. The concert concludes with two numbers by Stephen Schwartz, who gave us musicals from Pippin and Wicked to Pocahontas and Enchanted; the last song is his “When You Believe,” from The Prince of Egypt. Wrong holiday, but where miracles are concerned, we’ll let it slide.
Doda Mollie: Chanukah Pajamika!
This CD solves a major dilemma—You can’t light Chanukah candles until it gets dark, but by then it’s time for bed! Doda Mollie’s solution? Pajamas first, then candles! All the standards are here, like “Maoz Tzur,” “Mi Yimalel,” and “Al Hanisim.” But Doda Mollie also adds some Chanukah songs you likely didn’t grow up with, especially some Israeli and Russian songs and the Ladino “Ocho Kandelikas.” Then she sprinkles on kazoos, slide whistles, and a springy Jew’s harp for cartoony effects. “Doda” is Hebrew for “aunt,” but Mollie Wine also has a master’s degree in education and is a cantor.
Shelley Posen: Menorah: Songs from a Jewish Life.
Posen is a Jewish answer to Bob Gibson—folksy, funny, and warm. Despite the title, only two of these tracks are Chanukah-related: “My Mother’s Old Menorah,” and “Will Their Children Light the Candles?” The two other themes are other special times—Pesach, Purim, and especially Shabbat—the Jewish national pastime: food. Not surprisingly, the themes overlap more than once; two standout tracks are the country-rock number about Shabbat “Cholent,” and “Everyone Loves Shabbes but the Chickens,” a Sousa-like march. Posen also waxes nostalgic for his late parents on several tracks, including the very touching “Fork Garden.” A great sitting-by-the-fireplace album.
Michael Levy: King David’s Lyre
Levy is a descendant of the Levites, the musicians in the Holy Temple. Like them, he plays a 10-stringed lyre. The experience of hearing melodies like “Oh Chanukah,” “Araber Tantz,” and “Hatikva” played on an instrument that predated them by millennia is exhilarating. It is the sound of Jewish history itself. The lyre’s sound is often like the guitar, but also tones of the lute, oud, balalaika and its other ancestors can be heard. Hearing its bejeweled tones, and then recognizing among them a familiar melody, is revelation. The lyre’s design was taken from coins dating from the Second Temple period; it is probable that the Levites who played at the rededication of the Temple—a festival they called “Chanukah”— would recognize this instrument and its sound.
Neshama Carlebach: Higher and Higher
As on her previous releases, she revisits the melodies composed by her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The twist this time is that her backing ensemble is the 24-voice Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. Together, they bring new meaning to the word “old” in the phrase “that old-time religion.” Singing in English and Hebrew, as well as wordless nigunim, Neshama leads the choir through 10 of her father’s beloved songs. Some, like the Erev Shabbat “V’Shamru” flicker like a candle. Mostly, they start off that way, then crescendo into a roaring fire. African sounds and rhythms are integrated as well. The overall effect is propulsive and, as the title promises, very uplifting. Carlebach’s first name means “soul,” and here she proves that she has yet another kind of that.
Various Artists: Pioneers for a Cure
Like USA for Africa, except Jews from all over. And this time, the album raises money to fund a cure for cancer. While they were at it, this all-star line up of Jewish artists paid tribute to the songs of the Israeli pioneers, melodies in need of preservation. The participants, of course, include Israeli stalwarts like David Broza and Yossi Piamenta. But they also include Sephardi acts like Pharaoh’s Daughter, Broadway’s Tovah Feldshuh, Yiddishists like the Klezmatics’ Lorin Skalmberg. Most of the songs are done very reverently, with few surprises. One is the jazzy New York Voices, who sign “Sivivon” as if it were a English noel; another is Rashanim, whose rendition of “Seh U’gdi” recalls “Jazz Odyssey” by Spinal Tap. Overall, this disc is an elegant way to save lives, while also saving some of Israel’s precious musical heritage.
Jackie Hoffman: Live at Joe’s Pub
If the Chanukah gets a bit too schmaltzy, pop this CD in. Hoffman’s humor is so abrasive you could scour the latke pan with it. This is Sarah Silverman for grown-ups. Hoffman runs through any number of things that upset her: her three-minutes-at-a-time Broadway career, PDA that doesn’t involve her, other people’s children, her brush with cancer. She punctuates her lacerating rants with endless Jewish references and hysterical songs. Humor born of suffering should be at least this funny to justify the pain itself. This comedy is incisive in a way that reminds you that the root of that word is “incision.”
May this Chanukah find your family close, your gifts meaningful, and your latkes crispy. Chag Same’ach!