Jewish Christmas Music, 2010 Edition

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You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard “White Christmas.”

Sure, I know that it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, and that it’s become a vital part of American culture. I’d definitely heard part of it before, the end part, where everyone sings “may all your Christmases be white”…but does the song really go like that? Is it really sort of pretty and actually funny? Does this make me a bad Jew? (Add this to the fact that I admitted on our Jewish parenting site that I actually like Halloween, I’m about to be kicked out of the so-Orthodox-I-don’t-own-a-TV camp for reals.)

We just got a press copy of lounge Pink Martini‘s new CD “Joy to the World.” They’re a Portland-based band (they call themselves a “little orchestra”) who performs smart, swinging lounge music that’s funny and sappy and smart as anything. Here they are performing a song that has nothing to do with Christmas:

The lyrics on the new album aren’t quite as juicy as the video clip, but they’re every bit as clever and acrobatic. (I mean, they’re covering Irving Berlin!) And then there are the other songs — a bunch of Christmas songs, all in the brand of self-aware smooth-jazz for which Pink Martini is known but is pleasant enough to listen to, which catapults you back to the 1920s and 30s and makes you feel just by listening to it that you’ve somehow acquired a pinstripe suit and a bowler hat, and, if you’re me, you might start thinking, Oh L-rd, have I turned into my grandparents?

And also turned Christian?

There are the Jewish songs, too. So many Christmas albums have the token Jewish song, which used to make buying the album pointless — 12 songs I’ll never listen to, and 2 songs that I will!? — until the iTunes store came along and let you buy single tracks. But if we only get a 12% share of Pink Martini’s album, they definitely didn’t skimp on quality. One entry is the Sephardic Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” — which used to be obscure five years ago, but now exists in enough cover versions to make you suspect that “I Have a Little Dreidel” is going out of style.

</pAnd then there’s a take, totally randomly, of “Elohai, N’Tzor,” the song (well, the line) that closes the Amidah prayer. It’s operatic and delicate and overblown, about 90% church music and 10% Old Cantorial Music. But it’s scarily well done. And it features Ida Rae Cahana, the former cantor at the Central Synagogue in New York, dueting with — wait for it — Ari Shapiro, who is NPR’s White House correspondent. It makes you feel uncomfortably like you’ve stumbled into a church service, and yet at the same time it’s exceedingly pleasant to listen to. Like when my parents used to take my sister and me driving around to look at Christmas lights.

Posted on November 24, 2010

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