Almost lost in all the commotion surrounding Bob Dylanâ€™s new Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart â€” his first charity album, as the proceeds from all sales are being donated to hunger charities, according to his website â€” is a fair consideration of the music itself: where it sits in the context of Dylanâ€™s overall output, and how it relates to the decades-old genre of Christmas recordings by popular music artists.
For the last twenty years or so, and especially over the last decade, Bob Dylan has been honing a particular sound, especially in his live appearances â€” about 100 concerts per year on whatâ€™s been termed his â€œNever Ending Tour.â€ Dylanâ€™s aesthetic, which bears almost no relationship to that of any other artist in contemporary music, is a unique fusion of his own style of rock music (which in itself is a blend of many genres, including blues, folk, country, rockabilly, gospel, pop, and R&B) with pre-rock influences, such as western swing, bluegrass, jump blues, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. More ethnic sounds have been creeping into Dylanâ€™s work as of late, too, including the polka rhythms of his northern Minnesota youth, as well as Tex-Mex and French chansons, all of which gained prominence on his entertaining album released earlier this year, Together Through Life.
Given the revival of Dylanâ€™s interest in pre-rock musical traditions, it makes sense that he would now, from a musical point of view, tackle the timeless genre of holiday music, which in and of itself spans multiple styles and sounds. (Indeed, itâ€™s not for nothing that the back cover of the CD booklet sports a photo-illustration of the 1950s pin-up queen, Betty Page, dressed in a scanty Santa Claus outfit). On Christmas In the Heart, Dylan revels in the genreâ€™s eclecticism, turning in a bluesy version of â€œThe Christmas Blues,â€ a polka-infused â€œMust Be Santa,â€ and a tropical take on â€œChristmas Islandâ€ (as my son said disbelievingly upon first hearing this, â€œThereâ€™s such a thing as Hawaiian Christmas music?â€). Dylan even has a go at the 13th-century hymn, â€œO Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles),â€ tackling the first verse in the original Latin, Bing Crosby-style.
Dylan has taken his licks for some of his less-inspired forays into the holiday-music tradition. The album employs a corps of backup singers who trade verses with Dylan on several numbers, and instead of sounding like the soulful gospel choirs on his albums of the late 1970s and 1980s, these arrangements sound more like the sugary-sweet Ray Conniff singers, making for, to say the least, an odd juxtaposition with Dylanâ€™s craggy vocals.
A word about those vocals are in order: Dylanâ€™s voice, even at its best, is a topic worthy of a blogpost series of its own, maybe even a book. Suffice it to say that even for those (like me) who sincerely believe that Dylan is a masterful singer who phrases with the best of them, Dylanâ€™s voice has never sounded worse than it does here: raspy, phlegmy, downright scary. Itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone playing this music at a real holiday party; if Christmas music is supposed to evoke warm, holiday feelings, this sounds more like the soundtrack to Christmas courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge (even if this is a very un-Scrooge-like charity effort).
And with only a few exceptions (â€œMust Be Santa,â€ â€œHere Comes Santa Clausâ€), the instrumental arrangements are uninspired, eschewing as they do the fine tradition of rocking holiday numbers such as Tom Pettyâ€™s â€œChristmas All Over Again,â€ Bruce Springsteenâ€™s â€œSanta Claus Is Coming to Town,â€ or any one of many fun versions of â€œJingle Bell Rock,â€ any of which Dylan could have easily imprinted with his own idiosyncratic stamp.
Here is a somewhat shocking fact. There is only one Jewish high school in all of the United States that boasts a full 11-man tackle football team. Here is another fact: In their first season with an 11-man team, the San Diego Jewish Academy Lions are 6-2, and are heading to the playoffs this Saturday night.
I thought I’d ask Athletic Director Charlie Wund, Coach John Milisitz, and star quarterback Joseph Mizrachi about what it’s like to be on such a unique team.
MyJewishLearning: How long has the team been around?
Charlie Wund: The school itself is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The high school has been around for 10 or 11 years. The football team is only eight years old. This is actually the first year that we’ve moved to an 11-man football team. In the past, we’ve used an eight man team. We officially entered a league and a conference that has made us eligible for the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) Playoffs, which we’re playing in this Saturday night.
Tell me a little about your school. How many students? What type of Jewish day school is it?
Joseph Mizrahi: We’re a pluralistic Jewish school. There aren’t a lot of kids here. There’s around 185 kids in the high school.
With only 185 kids in the school, how many people are on the football team?
Mizrachi: Our football team has about 25 kids. A lot of them are freshmen or rookies who have never played football before. We basically had to spend the entire year teaching them how to play.
Coach, what type of challenges have you had with this team, with a small team?
John Milisitz: I would say three quarters of my team didn’t know how to put on their pads the first time.
They remind me of the movie Little Giants.
Milisitz: Actually, our team is big. We have four guys that are 250+. And we have some really good athletes. We’re really fast. It was easy to teach them because of that. Football is different from other sports that, if you’re athletic, and your team has a good quarterback and running attack, it’s easy to pick up.
Joseph, I read that, during the game, you use Hebrew audibles to change the play at the line. Can you tell me more about that?
Mizrachi: Well, we don’t want anyone to understand our plays. If we called the plays in English, the other team could easily hear. But what other school teaches Hebrew? We call the counts and blocking assignments in Hebrew too. It’s a major advantage for us.
Whose it was it idea to use Hebrew?
Milisitz: It was actually Joseph’s. We decided to call plays in Hebrew. But some of the guys don’t speak Hebrew as well. So we stopped that, but we started the snap counts, blocking schemes, etc. It won’t be full Hebrew, but enough to call the plays. Even I, and I’m not Jewish, have picked up a lot.
Some people may not know, but many high school football games are played on Friday night. Since your team doesn’t play on Shabbat, has the scheduling changes forced you to play a shorter season?
Wund: No. We played the full seven conference game schedule and one pre-season game before that. We didn’t play as many non-conference games. One reason is that, in the first week of November, we have school trips, so each grade goes to a different part of the country. So we couldn’t play a game then. Last year, we couldn’t play a full schedule because of all the Jewish holidays. Having them fall on Thursdays meant we couldn’t play a lot of games.
Has the conference been accommodating?
Wund: Absolutely. We are the only Jewish school in San Diego with a sports program. But there is a Seventh Day Adventists school in the area, so they’ve faced many of the same issues that we have. For example, our volleyball team made it to the Div. 5 finals, and we had to switch the location and the time. This year, they got wind that they were going to be good again. So they switched the time in advance.
How many of players on the team are Shomer Shabbat?
Mizrachi: I think we have three Shomer Shabbat players. We have a couple of players who pray Orthodox-style but not that many of us are very observant.
Do you think teams take you less seriously because you’re Jewish?
Milisitz: I said this in pre-season. Everyone looks at the calendar and sees us and predicts a win. But we started the year 4-0. I think we won our first game, something like 67-0. I think three of our first four games were shutouts. Our defense is smothering.
Has anyone been scouted?
Milisitz: Well, our long snapper could play anywhere because he’s so good at it. I think he is ranked Top 10 in the country. And he’s a big kid. Joseph could play in college too if he chooses to. One of our lineman, a Junior, is second in the state in sacks, with 19 or something. Most of our players are looking at good colleges for academics though. Our team GPA is between 3.7-3.8.
In the upcoming weeks, I’ll try to give some updates on how the Lions do in the playoffs. Good luck guys!
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Bob Dylanâ€™s Christmas album is that it took nearly fifty years for him to make one. There is a long-established tradition of pop artists recording Christmas music, after all. Artists in all genres, from classic pop crooners such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Mel TormÃ© to white-bread entertainers such as Connie Francis, Dinah Shore, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Andy Williams, to early rock nâ€™ rollers such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, to country singers such as Gene Autry, Merle Haggard, and Eddy Arnold, to soul/R&B artists such as Charles Brown and Luther Vandross, to hard-rockers such as Foghat, Slade, and the White Stripes, to classical vocalists such as Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarottti, to punk-rock artists such as the Kinks and the Ramones, to hip-hop artists Run-DMC, Raekwon, and Kurtis Blow — all have recorded Christmas songs or Christmas albums.
And not just a few of these songs happen to have been written or recorded by Jewish artists. In fact, the bestselling song of all time is a Christmas song written by a Jew. I speak, of course, of “White Christmas,” written by the son and grandson of cantors, Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline in eastern Belarus, the man also responsible for that springtime favorite, â€œEaster Parade.â€
While Irving Berlin holds the title as author of the bestselling song (and Christmas song) of all time, another Jewish musician, saxophonist Kenny G — born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick — is the all-time Christmas-album champion, with not one but two albums in the all-time Top 10, including the number-one bestselling Christmas album of all time, Miracles. (Kenny G has recorded five â€œholidayâ€ albums in sum, and to his credit, a few of these have included token Hanukkah songs.)
Other Jewish stars of the â€œholidayâ€ music genre include Barry Manilow, Herb Alpert, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, and Mel TormÃ©. TormÃ© is both writer and originator of one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, titled, aptly enough, â€œThe Christmas Song,â€ but perhaps best known for its opening phrase, â€œChestnuts roasting on an open fire…â€ (Dylan includes a rendition of this song on his album.)
Other Jewish songwriters who hit paydirt catering to the seasonal music market included Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, whose efforts include â€œLet It Snow,â€ and Johnny Marks, who made something of a specialty of writing Christmas songs, including â€œRockinâ€™ Around the Christmas Tree,â€ â€œA Holly Jolly Christmas,â€ and that novelty classic, â€œRudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.â€
There is perhaps nothing more American, nothing more traditional, and, perhaps, nothing more traditional for a Jewish-American musician, than recording Christmas music.
Two weeks ago in Parashat Vayera we read about how Abraham and Sarah were really stellar hosts, and on MJL we even featured our article on how to be a good host and a good guest. I think our ideas are pretty good, but Apartment Therapy is featuring a bunch of other tips to keep in mind as you’re hosting. The tips come from an etiquette manual first published in 1906 but they’re remarkably relevant today. For instance:
â€œTrue hospitality is not in inviting guests to a lavish display of flowers, viands and wines, with the object of astonishing them by such profusion. Life will be robbed of much of its good cheer if we hesitate to bring people together because we can be neither magnificent nor wonder-making hosts. A well-cooked, well-served dinner where a few congenial friends are assembled, may be delightful.â€
Check out the other tips here.
There’s a chapter in A.J. Jacobs’ new book, The Guinea Pig Diaries (which we just interviewed him about on MJL) about outsourcing jobs to India. Specifically, Jacobs outsources the job of being A.J. Jacobs: he hires an executive assistant (at a very reasonable rate) to reply to his email, ask his boss for deadline extensions, and even schedule a date with his wife. His assistant has immaculate grammar, access to his personal calendar (niece’s birthday card? Check) and she employs flourishes that American workers frequently overlook — saying “thank you” and signing emails with a salutation, for instance.
In fact, suggests Jacobs in his book, he wouldn’t be surprised if American executive assistants went extinct in the next few years.
You can therefore imagine my surprise when a friend sent me this email:
Are you looking for a virtual executive assistant? Have you been unable to find one in the US who charges rates you can afford?
Good news! You can now work with an Ivy League-educated, former Fortune-500 employee who will work with you on a part-time basis (as few as 5 hours/week!).
Secretary in Israel has a team of American college-graduates who all work as your marketing and administrative assistant. You can read the bios of each of their American virtual executive assistants and find one who is a fit for you.
When we lived in Israel, there were three categories of friends: yeshiva students, workers, and IDTers. Yeshiva students were supported either by meager kollel payments or by relatives abroad. Workers made often-substandard wages — one of our close friends, a physical therapist with an advanced degree, makes under $6 an hour working at a hospital…without health benefits. IDT was a telecommunications company that paid American wages to answer helplines, so that people could study in yeshiva or be full-time parents and work night hours.
Last week I was at this salon type thing where a diverse group of Jews had a conversation about Jewish peoplehood. I have no sense of what that means, and to be honest, I don’t think it makes that big of a difference, but one thing that someone mentioned was if there’s a way to unite all kinds of Jews from all over the world under one message. Could Jews be the first carbon neutral religion in the world? Maybe Jews should be championing literacy for all?
It was an interesting idea, but one that I don’t think has a huge amount of realism behind it. Getting all the Jews in the world, or even most of the Jews in the world, to agree on anything is a laughable goal. But even if it was possible, I don’t think carbon neutrality or literacy are likely to be issues that unite everyone, if only because in some ways those seem to me to be very lefty issues. You might be able to get lots of liberal Jews together on these issues, but coming from an Orthodox community, I have to say I can’t imagine the principal of my high school getting behind a carbon neutral initiative that united his school with, say, a Reform Temple. I don’t think he’d be anti carbon neutrality, but I don’t think he’d be as excited about it as he would be if it was a purely Orthodox endeavor.
But you know what I think he would get behind, if only because there would simply be no way he could come out against it? An organization dedicated to eliminating poverty. Poverty and hunger are the kinds of things that everyone can agree on. It’s bad when people don’t have enough money to provide safe drinking water for their village. It’s bad when mothers can’t afford to feed their kids. There’s no other side to that, you know?
So even though I know it’s impossible, I’d like to suggest that all Jews everywhere get on board with NURU, a new organization that aims to fight terrorism by ending poverty. Learn more in the video below:
The key to hip-hop music–the music part, that is–is restraint. A sparseness of beats, the use of musical samples when they’re needed and a careful placing of the bombast. The first time I heard N.W.A., the original gangsta rap group, I couldn’t believe that this was the music that adults were warning us about. Yes, there were a bunch of curses and adult themes. But it was so not loud. It was smooth, danceable, catchy. It was almost…chilled out.
But that’s the key to getting crazy, isn’t it? Knowing when to get wild and when to hold back. Rebbe Nachman speaks about how a lion only hunts a few hours a day; the rest of the time, it relaxes in the shade. And the feeling you get when Dr. Dre easily, almost drearily, croons the words, “If your @$$ get smoked, it’s my bullet you caught,” is that he’s a yawning lion.
The Tel Aviv hip-hop crew Soulico, the newest assignees to JDub Records, knows this feeling. Their debut full-length, Exotic on the Speaker, features a rotating microphone stand, with different hip-hop M.C.s filling in the vocal duties on each track. It might seem like a strange gambit for an instrumental band, but it’s a less edgy, more accessible way to appeal to listeners…and, although the album is certainly busy with voices, it is undoubtedly the music which is foremost in the speakers.
Clever tricks, otherworldly keyboard noises, and fresh-sounding beats with crisp world-drum sounds and thumping tablas all mix with an eager ferocity…but, wisely, are never given to excess. And maybe it’s an identity crisis, but the rotating-door policy of singers makes sense when you listen, lending the music its signature flow, its recurring hooks, and the constant what-was-that? feeling of a mixtape–or the veneer of famousness that opens Saturday Night Live every week.
The album’s first vocalist is a curious choice for a Tel Aviv-based Israeli collective — it opens with Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah shouting “Salaam aleikum” at the audience. From there, the song descends into a rapid Arabic/English exchange between Ghostface and an M.C. named Saz. Tomer Yosef–the Tel Aviv-based MC whose solo album Laughing Underground JDub released last year — also contributes a verse, in English.
In fact, it isn’t until the third track, the song “Pitom Banu,” that one of Soulico’s guest M.C.s, the Netanya-based Axum, contributes a verse in Hebrew. You might suggest that it’s JDub and the artists trying to accentuate their “world-music” label. But it’s probably more likely that it’s a more-or-less accurate reflection of Tel Aviv’s party culture, and of its urban culture, as diverse, multilingual, multiracial and multi-rhythm-ed as any city in the world.
Throughout Exotic, there’s a mix of languages, ethnicities, and allegiances, both national and political, but all feature the same party-down lyrics that you’d expect. While the restraint in beatmaking isn’t something you’d expect from Israeli party DJs — this is the country where ’70s disco never died, remember — it pays off well. “S.O.S.” features little more than Arabic drums and a flamenco guitar, but slight embellishments and a great stop-and-go rhythm turn the piece into a full-bodied song.
Perhaps not strangely, there’s a noticeable reluctance for Soulico to overtly identify themselves in songs as Israeli. A handful of Hebrew-language M.C.s make appearances here — Sagol 59 and Axum both make notable appearances — but Tomer Yosef’s verses are all in English (unlike his Hebrew-language solo material), and the album’s considerable guest appearances, from hip-hop heavyweights like Ghostface, Pigeon John, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Rye Rye — who takes vocal duties on the title track — aren’t Jewish, aren’t Israeli, and probably have very little to do with either of the above.
“Basically, politics boils down to this: it’s like, get in where you fit in,” Del says in the spoken intro to “Politix” — before explicating his statement in detail in the main verse. “Politics are inevitable/wherever you go, you can’t go far/without someone you know knowing/someone who owns a gas station and someone else who owns a car.”
In this way, this album is political as anything — by throwing every part of Israel, every part of the planet, and every genre of music up against the wall, watching the colors run into each other, and seeing what you end up with, it’s almost as though Soulico has created a color scheme for a new flag of the world.
You’ll get a chance to see Anne Frank as a “feisty teenager” rather than a “tragic Jewish saint.” (New York Post)
Should Israel purchase the house where Hitler was born in Austria? (Jerusalem Post)
A new project translates the work of Holocaust writer Primo Levi, Anne Frank’s diary and two other Holocaust-themed works into Arabic and Farsi, for download and paperback. (Tablet)
A new British law will allow art looted by the Nazis and found in British museums to be returned to its original owners. (TheJC.com)
A recent book about Eliezer Greenboim illuminates “the fraught and complex phenomenon of kapos and other Jewish leaders during the Holocaust.” (Ha’aretz)
I’ll admit it. I still haven’t seen A Serious Man. I mean, I should. I’m planning on it. But, let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to. That doesn’t mean I can’t blog about it though.
The first Coen Brothers movie that I ever saw was The Big Lebowski. It also happens to be my favorite movie (how cliche, I know). But what always got me about the film was how Jewish the most famous scene in Lebowski is. If you don’t know it, John Goodman’s character, Walter Sobchak, goes on a tirade because their bowling team is scheduled to play on Saturday, and Walter is shomer shabbos.
What always got me about this scene is that in order to truly appreciate the scene, you have to know what shomer shabbos is. If you don’t the scene is somewhat lost to you (Ironically, Lebowski Fest, a festival celebrating all things Big Lebowski is often held on Saturdays. Doesn’t make any sense).
But that’s just one scene. If you don’t know anything about Judaism, you can still get along fine with watching Big Lebowski. But after watching this “Behind the Scenes” of A Serious Man, provided by our good friends at JTA, I can venture to guess that someone who doesn’t get Jewish references will have issues with certain scenes in this film. What other Hollywood film uses the word agunah? That’s right. There isn’t one.
There’s a photo in YNet’s feature on comics for Hasidic Jews with the caption “Determined not to pollute children’s minds.” The article itself discusses the novelty of Hasidim producing their own funnybooks — as if it’s an entirely novel idea that a community that already creates its own distinctive clothing, food, medicines, transportation system, and books and periodicals could possibly produce its own comics.
But let’s get back to this idea about polluting children’s minds. I’m not going to lie. I censor what my kid reads. Although these comics are, as the article says, a “far cry from the thrills of Spiderman and the sexy glam of Lois Lane,” I’d give my daughter a family-friendly Ultimate Spider-Man comic any day of the week. On the other hand, the regular Amazing Spider-Man comic — the “mainstream” version — recently had a plotline about Norman Osborne, Peter Parker’s best friend’s father, going back in time, raping his other best friend, and impregnating her with, um, half-goblin twins.
Not exactly what I’d give my kids to read…no matter whether I’m an Orthodox Jew or a dominatrix or anyone else. The essence of parenting is keeping your kids away from bad things and introducing them to good or inspiring ones. Of course that’s sheltering. It’s also how you keep your kid from getting into trouble, whether it’s stopping them from drinking laundry detergent or becoming a half-goblin rapist.
That said, here’s what the article doesn’t really talk about: the comics themselves. Many of them retell stories of tzaddikim — sometimes performing miracles, sometimes just doing crazy things. (The Vilna Gaon traveling across Europe to find a good etrog was a good example of that.) Others relate Bible stories. I assure you, it’s less crazy and blood-boiling than the “traditional religious tales, all of which are aimed at glorifying the Lord and teaching good virtue” that YNet suggests.
Actually, these comics are a G-dsend. They’re pretty amazing productions — lavishly illustrated, printed on water-repellent glossy paper, and often with their own signature style. One publishing house produces Pixar-like animals, half CGI and half hand-drawn. Another concentrates on painted, gothic-esque images; still another does “widescreen” paneling like Marvel Comics’ Ultimate imprint, where panels take up the entire horizontal margins with visually-dramatic desert and battle scenes.
One notable thing that the article does bring up, however inadvertently: about the cottage industry of comic books created within the Hasidic community, mostly in Israel. At the same time as many independent bookstores and publishers are feeling the grind of recession, and presses are falling right and left, these comics represent a complete publishing victory, both financial and popular: it’s catering to a specific populace — successfully — and people are actually buying it. And, apparently, enjoying it.