Dec 24, 2021
Press play on Orthodox Jewish musician Yossi Desser’s newly released Yiddish Chanukah Carols and you will find yourself immersed in the instantly recognizable trappings of a classic mid-century Christmas carol: lightly brushed snare drums, dreamy archtop guitar, and syrupy sweet strings. Just when you feel certain that sleigh bells must not be too far off, Desser’s clear, lovely tenor voice breaks through in a perfectly geshmak Yiddish: S’haybt on oystsukikn vi khanike/vi nor men gayt (It’s beginning to look like Chanukah/everywhere you go).
I first heard the album after a friend tagged me in a Twitter thread of Yiddishists, scholars, and Jewish cultural workers, all buzzing with delight and surprise over this unexpected piece of trans-cultural holiday cheer, and I found myself genuinely entranced. Seeing the captivated look on my face, my partner, who is not Jewish, asked me a very reasonable question: “Why do you like this?” Back on Yiddish Twitter, folks were wondering the same thing. “Why does this work? It shouldn’t work, but it does!” My partner again: “I always thought you hated this sort of thing. Isn’t it basically a Chanukah bush?”
My partner had good reason to wonder. I have a well-documented history as a Grinch, bemoaning the aggressive omnipresence of Christmas paraphernalia and performatively spitting on the floor in disapproval of perfunctory instances of Chanukah “inclusion.” So what makes this Chanukah/Christmas musical parody different from all other Chanukah/Christmas musical parodies?
Yiddish Chanukah Carols found me at exactly the right moment. Outside of the Yiddish world, to which I am still a relative newcomer, I work primarily in the theater, and frequently as a puppeteer. As many actors and musicians know, the most reliable work in a performer’s yearly calendar is often the holiday show. This year, I’m performing in one of my city’s more popular Christmas traditions of the last decade: a live puppetry theater adaptation of the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop motion animated television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having performed in this same production a number of years ago, I was already familiar with the alienating experience of being the lone Jew in a Christmas season that lasts from October into the new year. But this time, with one foot in Christmas Town and the other in Yiddishland, singing the yuletide tunes of Jewish American songwriter Johnny Marks over a dozen times a week struck me a little differently. Out of a desire to fortify my burgeoning Yiddish skills against Santa Claus’ festive influence, I tried my hand at translating some of the Rudolph songs into Yiddish. And as is the case with so much of my personal creative work, a project that began as an attempt to amuse myself and my friends started to take on a deeper significance — at least for me. I found myself asking some of the same questions Desser’s album invites us to consider. What does it mean to engage in this sort of cross-cultural translation/adaptation? When does a creative work begin to transcend parody and hold its own merit? And what, really, does Christmas have to do with Jews like me anyway?
Yiddish Chanukah Carols rises above the level of spoof because of its committed engagement with both the original and new materials. The concept may be simple, but the execution is rigorous; it is no mere transposition of Chanukah imagery over a melodic backdrop of roasting chestnuts and silver bells. Producer Ruli Ezrachi not only exquisitely captures the musical ornamentations emblematic of the mid-century Christmas carol genre, but also arranges each track so that it settles comfortably between Desser’s new Chanukah lyrics and the recognizable Christmas original. The vocals, instrumentation, and production are balanced wonderfully.
Desser’s selection of source materials represents some of the most famous and recognizable Christmas carols in the English-speaking world, the majority of which were composed between 1934 and 1951. I would be far from the first to remark how many traditional Christmas songs were created by Jews. Six of the twelve songs on the album were originally composed and/or written by Jews, most children of recent immigrants — or, in the case of Irving Berlin (né Israel Beilin), immigrants themselves— and nearly all known by distinctly non-Jewish pen names. These songs have become iconic;, they are now deeply embedded in American popular consciousness. It is no small task to invite such recognizable tunes into such a distinctly different context.
Yet trans-cultural translations and adaptations are nothing new in the world of Yiddish song, whether comic parodies on the Borscht Belt stage, repurposed theater tunes in service of radical political movements, ghetto and camp songs composed during the Holocaust, or the longstanding Hasidic tradition of “redeeming” the sparks of holiness hidden within gentile melodies in order to return them to their heavenly source. Both religious and secular Jews have a long history of reappropriating melodies and writing new lyrics to serve a variety of cultural and spiritual purposes.
Desser’s project is detailed and thoughtful, and his Yiddish lyrics are crafted to evoke beloved memories of Chanukahs gone by. His Yiddish flows fluidly over the carol melodies, and Desser skillfully avoids that all-too-common hallmark of the subpar parodist, the tendency to cram in far more syllables than a line can support.
Throughout the album, listeners encounter cozy wintertime scenes of families and communities gathering, lighting candles, playing games of dreidel and kvitlekh, sharing fried latkes and doughnuts, and simply having a wonderful Chanukah time. These images, similar in tone if not in content to the original songs from which they are adapted, contrast with more explicitly Judaic lines about the coming of moshiakh and olam-haba, the oppressions of the Seleucid Empire and subsequent Hasmonean revolt, and the Beys Yosef’s Kashe, a famously perplexing Chanukah question posed by Shulchan Aruch author Yosef Karo. These parallel but distinct lyrical trends push back against the influences of Christmas with more potent yiddishkayt than a simple dreidel game can muster.
O Holy Night, the only carol for which Desser has not written original lyrics, stands out for both its age (first set to music in 1847) and its status as a genuine religious hymn. Desser’s adaptation is stylistically distinct from the rest of the album as well; charming wintertime verses and mid-century musical pastiche give way to an earnest and heartfelt cantorial rendition of Haneros Halelu sung by operatic baritone Jacob Waldman. Haneros Halelu, a prayer with origins in Talmudic and Gaonic texts, recalls the obligation to treat the Chanukah lights as objects of spiritual contemplation and gratitude, and the restriction against using them for functional illumination. Here again, Desser ensures there can be no question about which side he falls on in this Christmas/Chanukah collision.
A tension between borrowed Christmas pastiche and sincere Jewish holiday feeling appears in the album’s lone music video (to date). Dreidelekh, to the tune of “Silver Bells,” begins with Desser in a blue dreidel-patterned sweater, perched on a stool with guitar in hand, singing before a fireplace surrounded by piles of gifts. The video continues in this vein for a while as Desser strolls through Manhattan eating doughnuts and spinning dreidels. But about two thirds of the way through, the scenery and costume shift. We now find Desser walking into shul, standing on the bimah in black suit and tallis. The earlier “ugly Chanukah sweaters” and cheerful wintertime shots of the city are now balanced against the beautiful interior of the Kings Park Jewish Center on Long Island. It is a more religious context, but no less bright: Desser sings and strums his guitar in front of a tall, modern-looking aron kodesh and flanked by colorful stained glass windows.
The Christmas carol is a potent amalgam of American Protestantism, modern national consciousness, and capitalist popular culture, as emblematic of the dominant culture as a Greek altar might be in Hellenized Judea. This makes it a particularly charged site for an experiment such as Yiddish Chanukah Carols, and generates the compelling dissonance that first drew me and the rest of Yiddish Twitter in. This leads me to wonder, as many others have, what compelled so many 20th century Jewish composers and lyricists to write these standards in the first place. American Jews’ relationship with assimilation and mainstream US culture is quite different today than it was in 1942, when Irving Berlin first released “White Christmas.” These American Jewish songwriters were well aware of the horrors taking place in their mother countries, while at the same time grappling with the strange balance between US antisemitism and the subsuming privileges of Whiteness into which they were slowly being assimilated. Berlin and his peers sought to resolve that tension in part by fashioning a nostalgia for a past they never knew, in the hopes of finding a secure place in the American present. In doing so, they inadvertently helped invent the secular, commercial Christmas that has been with us ever since.
This invites another question, that of appropriation: now that these songs have become such a fundamental facet of Christmas observation, is there something disrespectful about Desser’s Judaization? Is “White Chanukah” somehow less appropriate than “White Christmas?” For one, most of the songs Desser has adapted can hardly be said to be religious; if anything, they are hymns to a secular American Protestantism more than any actual religious sentiment. When these songs are — like Christmas itself — so ubiquitous as to be nigh unavoidable, a reinterpretation by a minority culture can hardly be described as “cultural appropriation,” a concept more appropriately applied to the decontextualization, misuse, or profiting off of elements of marginalized cultures by representatives of the dominant culture.
My enthusiastic acceptance of Yiddish Chanukah Carols, along with the softening of my Grinch persona altogether, has to do as well with a more nuanced understanding of the many experiences overshadowed by most Christmas/Chanukah conversations. While sharing memes in favor of the fictional “War on Christmas” can be an entertaining and cathartic response to the alienation many Jews feel this time of year, I’m becoming more interested in the less straightforward considerations. How do Jews in interfaith households, patrilineal Jews, Jewish converts from Christianity, and others who are often marginalized by fellow Jews feel when we consistently disparage these practices that were or still are part of their lives? Maybe I am trying to have my fruitcake and eat it too, but I feel that we can and should champion new, subversive, authentic Jewish cultural production without reenacting the same alienation that we ourselves have experienced.
Jews have always lived among others, influenced by and influencing the cultures which surround them. When it comes to commercialized Christmas (and Chanukah) there’s plenty to roll one’s eyes at, but that can be said about almost anything under our supercapitalist monoculture — we are all vulnerable to having our traditions cynically packaged and sold back to us. In light of that reality, I welcome any original attempt to navigate the cultural role of Chanukah in a Christmas world. Delightful projects like Yiddish Chanukah Carols can be more than a novelty or gimmick; they can be earnest expressions of a creative yiddishkayt, in continuity with centuries of evolution and adaptation, with all of their syntheses and contradictions.
Bonus content! Jake Krakovsky’s translation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Johnny Marks
„רודאָלף דער רױטנאָזיקער רעניפֿער"
געשריבן פֿון דזשאָני מאַרקס
איבערגעזעצט פֿון יאַנקל קראַקאָװסקי
מיט דער הילף פֿון מיכל יאַשינסקי
איר װײסט בערל און שמערל און בלומע און בלימע…
יאַנקל און יודל און גאָלדע און גיטע…
אָבער צי געדענקט איר
דעם רעניפֿער מיטן שם אָן אַ שיעור?
רודאָלף מיט זײַן רױטן נעזל
איז אַ ראַרער רעניפֿער
קוקט אים נאָר אָן אין פּנים
זעט אַ נאָז װאָס פֿינקלט הין און הער
די אַנדערע רעניפֿערן
האָבן פֿון אים אָפּגעלאַכט
מיט אים טרײַבן זײ לצנות
זיי לייגן ניט אויף אים קיין אַכט
אָבער אײן נעפּלדיקע ניטל־נאַכט
האָט סאַנטע קלאַוס געזאָגט׃
„רודאָלף מיט דײַן נאָז און קלױ
פֿיר מײַן שליטל אָט אַזױ!״
ער איז דעמאָלט באַװוּסט געװאָרן
און יעדער האָט אַ שרײַ געטאָן׃
„רודאָלף מיט דײַן רױטן נעזל
אין די קראָניקעס װעסט זײַן פֿאַראַן!״
“Rudolf der roytnoziker renifer“
geshribn fun Johnny Marks
ibergezetst fun Yankl Krakovsky
mit der hilf fun Mikhl Yashinsky
Ir veyst Berl un Shmerl un Blume un Blime…
Yankl un Yudl un Golde un gite…
Ober tsi gedenkt ir
Dem renifer mitn shem on a shir?
Rudolf mit zayn roytn nezl
Iz a rarer renifer
Kukt im nor on in ponim
Zet a noz vos finklt hin un her
Di andere renifern
Hobn fun im opgelakht
Zey traybn mit im letsones
Zey leygn nit af im keyn akht
Ober eyn nepldike nitlnakht
Hot sante klaus gezogt:
“Rudolf, mit dayn noz un kloy
fir mayn shlitl ot azoy!”
Er iz demolt bavust gevorn
Un yeder hot a shray geton:
Rudolf mit zayn roytn nezl
In di kronikes vest zayn faran!”