various artists,
A Taste of Chanukah
(Rounder, 1999)

A Taste of Chanukah is the recording of a night in Boston's Jordan Hall featuring Jewish music for the Festival of Lights from around the world played and sung by world class musicians and Jewish performing artists of renown. These include the likes of Theodore Bikel, the veteran musician and actor, whose command of language and hearty vocals have captivated audiences for years.

Less well known, but a prince among klezmer fans, is the Boston Conservatory's Hankus Netsky, who was responsible in great measure for the renaissance in klezmer, the Jewish music style developed over the centuries by wandering groups of musicians. The klezmorim, as they were known, would play weddings, bar mitzvahs, functions in general and other gigs, then move along to the next village, then the next, like a Vaudeville act.

A Taste of Chanukah could have easily degenerated into the mawkish parody of Jewish music that so many releases prior to the aforementioned renaissance often did. It could have suffered easily from the disease of assimilation becoming the kind of music that replaces traditional folk music with studio effects, Americanisms and cutesy musical stereotypes. Fortunately for all, it does not.

If you are reading Rambles at all, you know the drill to which I refer -- jazzing up the rich, traditional music with blue notes and a jazz band in the background so people will think it's cool, which implies it isn't when played in its original form. It's sort of like the difference between two record albums I own, one a field recording of the music of Sicily in which one can hear cow bells as a peasant walks an animal nearby the tape recorder, and the other Dean Martin singing "That's Amore!"

A Taste of Chanukah is a compilation any nation could be proud of because the Jew of history has been a citizen of so many nations, the language Yiddish a patois of Hebrew, German, Russian, Spanish, Polish and a host of other tongues. In it you will find, if not faithful renderings of traditional Chanukah music, then at the least highly representative arrangements with the ring of truth about them from a number of countries. You can even hear tell of Chanukah candles in a South American tango-like melody called "Ocho Kandelikas."

There's even an old bawbee (grandmother) giving a humor-laden lecture on how to make potato latkes, the traditional Jewish potato pancake served at Chanukah. The evening was really a hodgepodge of Judaic folklore in a way. A genuine Jewish cantor from the Boston community, Morton Shames, who has traveled to Siberia under the baton of opera mogul, Sarah Caldwell, adds an operatic touch to the lineup.

All in all, A Taste of Chanukah is a long time coming: a holiday music CD that doesn't fall into the trap of being either saccharinely sentimental or unctuously ethnic. After the post-war era assimilation of so many cultures, during decades when ethnicity was inadvertently trivialized by a vapid commercialism or a pandering ludicrous degradation, it is nice to see Jewish music out of the realm of "Hebrew School" music and back into the realm of the richly cultural, the hauntingly spiritual and the uncontrived joyousness that makes a heart glad.

[ by John Cross ]

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