“You Better Watch Out…!!!”

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Yesterday was Santacon in New York City! Described as a “non-denominational, non-commercial, non-political and nonsensical Santa Claus convention that occurs once a year for absolutely no reason,” thousands of young people dressed as Santa Claus hit the streets of New York City in an orchestrated pub crawl. It is quite the scene to behold. As we live in the Village, we waited until 4:00-ish to hit the streets as the East Village was designated Stage 3 (4:30 to 7:30). We threaded our way over to St. Marks amidst an every-increasing crush of Santas! Hundreds of young party-goers were dressed in seasonal red and white fur. Carefully sidestepping throngs outside of designated bars, we ended up on Second Avenue. Looking northwards, it seemed to be a river of Santas. The costumes were myriad and festive! Amongst the Santa suits (both male and female), we spotted elves, candy canes, reindeer, blue and white Yankee Santas, gingerbread figures, flashing lights, flirtatious female Santas, goth Santas, glam Santas, a few Egyptian headpiece-wearing Santas, and, finally, what we were really looking for…a young woman dressed as a furry blue and white dreidel! There are always a few Hanukkah Harry figures and this year did not disappoint! One young man sported a true Hanukkah Harry in the complete blue and white furry suit resplendent with a Star of David. And another young man had a menorah on his head!

What a sight to behold. In every inexpensive eatery in the East Village could be seen legions of bobbing Santa hats as the Santas stopped to refuel!

“Matishayu and Maccabeats: A New Spin on Hanukkah Music!”

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My wife less than fondly remembers about singing in the Christmas concerts of the 1970s at her grammar school in a small town in rural southeastern Connecticut. “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” was a sparse offering and an accommodation to the few Jews in the audience. After looking at recent Hanukkah music offerings, we’ve certainly come a long way!

Before we move on, it is worth noting that “I Had a Little Dreidel” reached near universal status. So popular was “The Dreidel Song” that people thought it was an unattributed folk song. Its origin is with Eastern European Jewish entertainers who wrote many Hanukkah songs in Yiddish, which were then reissued in English to great success. The Yiddish and English versions were composed in 1930 by Mikhl Gelbart and Samuel Goldfarb (supervisor for the entertainment department at the New York Bureau of Education) and the lyrics for both are by Samuel S. Grossman. Grossman adapted the lyrics to English with very little change, except that the Yiddish version had the dreidel made out of lead (Yiddish blay, leading scholars to believe that the Yiddish lyrics preceded the English) while the English version describes it as being made out of clay.

So where are we today?

Recently released, “Happy Hanukkah,” is a new reggae song by Matishayu, the proceeds of which through December 16th (the end of Hanukkah) will benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy. See happyhanukkah.matishayuworld.com

The Klezmatics, a popular Grammy Award winning Klezmer band, performed Hanukkah songs that showcased a selection from the many lyrics written from 1949 through the early 1950s by Woody Guthrie, the iconic American folk troubadour and songwriter. The result was the 2006 album, “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka,” comprising many different songs, including “Happy, Joyous Hanuka” and “Hanuka Tree.” This album gets a gold star! It is phenomenal!!! See http://www.klezmatics.com.

Let’s not forget YouTube sensation “Candlelight” featuring the Maccabeats, an all-male A Cappella singing group from Yeshiva University in New York City. In “Candlelight,” the Maccabeats parody of the music of the hip-hop song “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz, the lyrics reference latkes, candles and a telling of the Hanukkah story. Completely captivating, I have watched clusters of young kids of all ethnicities singing this song on the streets of New York City. see http://www.maccabeats.com

So Get Rockin’ With Hanukkah!

Hanukkah Stamps: “I want one of those…!”

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The following is a joke that we found at jewishmag.com:
A woman goes to the post office to buy stamps for her Chanukah cards.
She says to the clerk, “May I have 50 Chanukah stamps?”
The clerk says, “What denomination?”
The woman says, “Oh my God. Has it come to this? Give me 6 Orthodox, 12 Conservative, and 32 Reform.”

So, how did those Hanukkah stamps come into being? As with everything, there is a story! In 1996, as a result of a letter-writing crusade led by Myrna Holtzman of New York, the United States Postal Service issued the first Hanukkah stamp depicting nine candles in a variety of colors. The stamp was so popular that it was reissued in 1997 and each year thereafter, with a new dreidel design added in 2004 and 2009.

So, Really…How’s It Goin’ For Y’a?!

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Hanukkah had an exciting start for my family! Last night, we danced in the aisles at the Joshua Nelson concert at the Metropolitan Synagogue. What an amazing way to begin the holiday. With the Kosher Gospel Singers in tow, Joshua Nelson, in true form, had the place rocking! For any one unfamiliar with Joshua’s music, he has combined Jewish religious lyrics and meanings with the soulful sounds of American gospel music into “Kosher Gospel.” Joshua Nelson has performed around the world for Presidents and other dignitaries, congregations, major music festivals—and for Oprah, who named him a “Next Big Thing.” Check out his album, Mi Chamocha, sung with an abundance of stars from the music world ranging from Aretha Franklin to the Klezmatics. Also, the acclaimed documentary film Keep on Walking is not to be missed! After 10 years of attending his concerts and happenings, can you tell we are fans! (My wife would say ‘groupies!’) Check out Joshua Nelson’s website.

Latkes galore! So really, why is this consummate of Jewish foods so delectable? Perhaps because Latkes are infused with love and creativity! My wife makes the best latkes around! In addition to potato-based latkes, Lori makes versions such as zucchini/feta cheese, curried sweet potato, sweet corn, and kitchen sink root vegetable latkes! All delicious, all served with unique sauces that complement the traditional sour cream or apple sauce!

It’s Hanukkah time! Where’s the party?

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A Kosher Christmas Blog Photo ESBLast night marked the first night of Hanukkah! Menorah lightings will abound in homes and in public places. I presided over the menorah lighting at 35th and Park at 5:00. We were crammed onto the median with cars whizzing by! Exciting but a bit on the dangerous side!

Just overhead was the ethereal spire of the Empire State Building glowingly lit in blue and white and wrapped in mist! As with everything of import, there is a story surrounding the Hanukkah lighting of the Empire State Building! In 1997, nine-year old Mallory Blair Greitzer and her father wrote repeated letters to the management of the Empire State Building in Manhattan requesting that the color of the building’s tower lights be changed in honor of Hannukah. This request was steadfastly rejected on the basis that the management’s policy limited the lights to honor each religion on one day per year. (The landmark’s lights are blue and white for Israel Independence Day.) Mallory’s father then wrote to Leona Helmsley, the management company’s owner. Against the advice of her staff, Helmsley granted Mallory’s request. In celebration of Chanukah in 1997, the Empire State Building was (and each year thereafter has been) set alight with the colors blue and white. Grass roots campaigning at its best!

In homes and apartments everywhere, the wafting smell of latkes cooking in oil will flood kitchens and hallways and sufganyot will be plentiful! If you are looking for new and exciting events for Hanukkah, check out the following:

Joshua Nelson, the Prince of Kosher Gospel will perform a Hanukkah concert at the Metropolitan Synagogue at 7:00 pm tonight (40 East 35th Street, www.metropolitansynagogue.org)! For those not in the know, “Kosher gospel” is the union of Jewish religious lyrics and meanings with the soulful sounds of American gospel music. Not to be missed!!!!!!!! You’ll be dancing in the aisles!!!!!!!!

What else is there to do? Check out Major League Dreidel/Target Tops Tournament on December 13th at 8:00 pm! (This one I have written about in my book, “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish.”) Created in 2007, Major League Dreidel has been described as an “amped-up Hanukkah party and battle royale.” Players compete for the longest dreidel spin. This year hosts the first doubles tournament. So register at info@majorleaguedreidel.com by Wednesday, December 12th. Proceeds of the event will benefit Playworks, a nonprofit whose mission is to end playground bullying. Even if you don’t register, take a look at the website and then head to Full Circle Bar, 318 Grand Street (between Havemeyer Street and Marcy Avenue), Williamsburg, Brooklyn (347 725 4588).
Matisyahu Festival of Light. Matisyahu, formerly Hasidic but always remaining a reggae star, performs his annual Hanukkah concert on December 15 at 9:00 pm. Spark Seeker Terminal 5, 610 West 56th Street (11th Avenue).

We also want to give a shout out to Jewmongous is Sean Altman! Fabulously funny, Jewmongous is irreverently comedy song concert taking place on December 15th at 8:30, Towne Crier, 130 Route 22, Pawling, New York. NOTE: This should not be mistaken for the Jewmongous show at City Winery on December 25th (more to follow on that one!) www.jewmongous.com

Menorah Horah! A Hanukkah burlesque show tonight, Sunday December 9th at 8:00 pm at the Highline Ballroom, 431 West 16th Street (8th/9th).

Don’t dismiss Santacon! There are always a few Hanukkah Harry(s) and Mrs. Hanukkah Harry(s) amongst the thousands of Santas that throng and cavort around New York City. According to the website (http.//santacon), the New York happening is on December 15th with information to be revealed the night before.

A Chanukah Charol. Comedian Jackie Hoffman reenacts her one-woman retelling of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ using a semiautobiographical and very Jewish lens. December 8th-December 29th at 8:00 pm, New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street (8th/9th).

Fourth Annual Latke Festival. Chefs from 16 local restaurants—including A Voce, Balaboosta and Veselka—compete for first place latke on Monday December 10, 6:30 pm at BAM Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Avenue (Ashland Place/ St. Felix Street). Taste and judge for yourself! Profits from ticket sales will be donated to the Sylvia Center for childhood nutrition.

Gail Simmons: Latke Sizzle. Chef Gail Simmons talks with James Beard Foundation executive vice president Mitchell Davis about Latkes and other types of Jewish food to be followed by a latke tasting and vodka pairing. 8:15 pm, December 11, 92nd Street Y 1395 Lexington Ave (91st and 92nd).

The Big Quiz Thing’s Christmahanukwanzayear Spectacular. Noah Tarnow is host at this holiday-themed multimedia quiz show, 7:00 pm, Tuesday, December 11 – Wednesday December 12, Littlefield 622 DeGraw Street (Third and Fourth Avenues)

Delancey to Doughnuts: A Lower East Side Chanukah 2.5 hours Walking Tour at 10:45 this morning! see nycjewishtours.org


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A Kosher Christmas Blog Photos

Festivus, the secular December holiday credited to a screenwriter of the 1990s television sitcom Seinfeld, grew in popularity beyond its television roots as a secular societal celebration that allowed participants to express their feelings and frustrations with the holiday season.  Festivus parties take place across the United States, serving as magnets for younger generations of Americans, among them many Jews. The celebrants of Festivus have stripped the holiday season of any religious meaning, instead relying upon irony and parody to carry the day.

Festivus Chai! And at Whole Food’s no less! While rambling around the aisles of the Whole Foods at Union Square in Greenwich Village, my wife, son and I encountered an entire wall of Festivus Chai! .According to its on-line marketing materials, Festivus Chai is a limited‐edition seasonal holiday chai made with real cocoa, holiday spices, and organic ingredients.

Made by Third Street, Inc., a beverage company in Colorado, 5% of the proceeds during the holiday season will be donated to the Whole Planet Foundation, a nonprofit which attempts to alleviate poverty through microloans in the third world. So there is a tzedakah component to the Festivus product.

What is that song playing in my ear?

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Jews have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas. They have enhanced the national observance of Christmas by composing many of the Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. More secular than religious, these songs, among them Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Walter Rollins and Steve Fletcher’s “Frosty the Snowman,” and, most recently, Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” remind celebrants that Christmas belongs to all Americans who share in the spirit of patriotism, generosity, peace, and good will. Ironically, other Jews in the United States have developed strategies to downplay the significance of Christmas by composing poems and songs–in print, performance, and the media–that satirize and neutralize the religious nature of the holiday. Humorous songs and comedic performances offer outlets for the disenfranchised to vent disappointment over society’s fixation with the crass commercialization of Christmas.

Harboring an appreciation for music, I listened to many Hanukkah record albums and compact discs that introduced new songs to the public. This led to my discovering musical parodies of Christmas and Hanukkah that were recorded on specialty labels and eventually recreated on CDs, DVDs, and YouTube. Check out the following:
• Kosher Christmas Carols (Audio CD, September 4, 2007)
• ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah – The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights (Audio CD, Idelsohn Society)
• Brandon Walker – “Chinese Food on Christmas” (brandonwalkermusic.com)
• “Jewmongous” – seanaltman.com
• ‘It’s Christmas for the Jews” (Saturday Night Live)

Where can I get a Santa suit?

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So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book  “A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish,”( Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomenal of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!

In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!

Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.

Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn—it’s a living.

The underpinnings playing Santa Claus are myriad.  Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christmas, or whether from a yearning to be participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.