Hanukkah: Festival Of Lights, Music

The program's director Rob Sachs says Hanukkah music doesn't have to reflect on the holiday itself. Sachs offers some surprising suggestions for Hanukkah tunes.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Tonight is the third night of the eight-day festive holiday known as Hanukkah. It celebrates the survival of the Jewish people against a far larger Syrian army and the reclaiming and rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem. Lighting menorahs, eating potato pancakes - or latkes, as they're called - and singing holiday songs are all part of the Hanukkah celebration. And here to tell us more about the music you might want to listen to, to get into the Hanukkah spirit is our director, Rob Sachs. Welcome, Rob.

ROB SACHS: Hey, Cheryl.

CORLEY: So, what can you tell us about Hanukkah music?

SACHS: Well, Hanukkah music has really, really evolved from my days in Hebrew school, where we learned to play "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" and stuff like that. And these days there's modern bands playing Hanukkah songs; there's Hanukkah concerts going all over the place. There's even a band called Good for the Jews, and they have not quite a Hanukkah song. It's called "It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas," and here's what it sounds like.

(Soundbite of song "It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas")

GOOD FOR THE JEWS: (Singing) It's clear that we're the chosen ones. We got eight nights; you got just one. It's good to be a Jew at Christmas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SACHS: OK. So, that's "It's Good to be a Jew at Christmas."

CORLEY: A little tongue in cheek there.

SACHS: Yeah. Well, that's the thing with all these Hanukkah songs by these more modern groups. A lot of them are really sarcastic. So, I think a great way to celebrate Hanukkah is simply to listen to music by Jewish musicians that you may or may not have heard of.

CORLEY: OK. So, which ones do you have in mind?

SACHS: Well, the first one is a band called Guster. Now, they're a college band out of Boston, and they have Jewish members - Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel - who I talked to a few years back and they told me about their Jewish roots.

Mr. RYAN MILLER (Musician, Guster): We did have a show in Philadelphia once, where we lowered a giant papier mache menorah from the ceiling and had the Philadelphia Eagles mascot light it. To that extent, we're a Jewish band.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRIAN ROSENWORCEL (Musician, Guster): That's about as Jewish as we get.

CORLEY: All right.

SACHS: So, yeah. So, they play around with it. A lot of these bands, you know, they may be Jewish, but they're not explicitly saying it all the time. But you know, they like to have fun and joke around with it.

CORLEY: So, what song of theirs would you recommend?

SACHS: The song I would recommend is "Satellite." It's off their album "Ganging Up on the Sun," and here's what it sounds like.

(Soundbite of song "Satellite")

GUSTER: (Singing) You're my satellite. You're riding with me tonight...

CORLEY: Oh, it's - it's really a modern song. What about some more classic songs?

SACHS: Well, I love those golden oldies, and there are tons of Jewish singers out there that are great to listen to and you can enjoy. I'm thinking of Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond. You know, he's great.

CORLEY: Oh, yeah, yeah.

SACHS: But for this category, Cheryl, I want to go with maybe a not so obvious choice - Sammy Davis Jr.

(Soundbite of song "The Candy Man")

Mr. SAMMY DAVIS JR.: (Singing) Who can take a sunrise (Who can take a sunrise) Sprinkle it with dew (Sprinkle it with dew) Cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two? The Candy Man (The Candy Man) Ooh, the Candy Man can (The Candy Man can) The Candy Man can...

CORLEY: And of course, the very foot-tapping hit by Sammy Davis Jr., "The Candy Man." Let's switch gears just a little bit, Rob. Anything with a Latin flavor at all?

SACHS: Right. Now, just because you're thinking, OK, Jewish music, it really can go anywhere, you know?

CORLEY: OK.

SACHS: We heard the classic songs, rock songs, rap songs like the Beastie Boys. But there are Latin songs, and most famously, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This is a group that had no Latino players in it, but it really opened up Latin music to a wider audience. Now, here's a great example of Herb Alpert with his hit "Spanish Flea," which you may remember.

(Soundbite of song "Spanish Flea")

SACHS: Great trumpet playing there, huh?

CORLEY: Great trumpet playing. People with grey hair remember that from "The Dating Game" and all of that, too. So...

SACHS: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SACHS: So, it brings it back. It's kind of got that '60s feel to it, too, huh?

CORLEY: Absolutely. All right. So, we have all these mixes of Jewish singers and musicians, but there's no avoiding it this time of year, Rob - the Christmas music just abounds. So, what's a Jewish music-lover to do when it comes to Christmas music?

SACHS: Right. So, I'm thinking, as a Jew, you can take pride in knowing that some of the best Christmas songs ever written were composed by Jews. There's the Christmas song "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire;" that was written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells. "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow," written by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne. And of course, "White Christmas" was written by the great Jewish-American composer, Irving Berlin. So, I think we should honor Irving Berlin and listen to Bing Crosby singing a little bit of "White Christmas."

CORLEY: All right.

(Soundbite of song "White Christmas")

Mr. BING CROSBY: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

CORLEY: All right. Well, thank you, Rob, for those ideas on how to celebrate Hanukkah, even as we go out with Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

(Soundbite of laughter)

SACHS: My pleasure, Cheryl.

CORLEY: Rob Sachs is the director here at Tell Me More. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah continues until sundown on December 29th.

(Soundbite of song "White Christmas")

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) To hear sleigh bells in the snow. I'm dreaming of a white...

CORLEY: And that is our program for today. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "White Christmas")

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) May your days be merry and bright. And may all your Christmases be white.

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