New Chanukah CDs stand up to their toughest critics: kids

Roll over Judah Maccabee, tell Mattathias the news.

Hanukkah music is getting a much-needed infusion of funk, soul and modern Jewish artistry with the arrival of two new CDs, “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah” and “Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert.”

But don’t take my word that these albums will add some be-bop to your dreidels and sizzle to your latkes. As Chanukah is the festival of lights and children’s delights, I went straight to the source: my two children, Miguel, 10, and Maya, who will turn 3 in January.

“Lights,” produced by Jewish musician Craig Taubman, features an eclectic cast of musicians, artists and Rabbi David Wolpe, named the No. 1 pulpit rabbi in America by Newsweek in 2008. The album is a companion piece to a PBS special of the same name that will air Dec. 10 and 11 on KQED.

For the concert and album, Taubman gathered some of Jewish music’s best and brightest: the Klezmatics, actress and Jew-by-choice Mare Winningham, top-selling saxophonist Dave Koz, gospel singer Joshua Nelson and Cantor Alberto Mizrahi (aka the “Jewish Pavarotti”), among others.

Miguel, Maya and I were in the living room as I put on the “Lights” CD. Miguel was safely tucked behind the latest issue of Sports Illustrated while his sister pranced on the floor. He looked up after each song to offer his opinion. OK, more precisely, after each track I had to drag a reaction out of him.

Maya loved the entire CD. She swayed her hips to each song, pumped her arms and tried, in a toddler kind of way, to hop on one foot.

Miguel’s favorite track was “Hanukah Gelt” by the Klezmatics. He said he liked it because “it’s a speedy song. I’m not a slow song guy.”

There is something for everyone on “Lights,” which opens with the reggae-influenced “Mi Yimalel” by Taubman, the Tribe, and Mizrahi. Mizrahi solos on the funky “Od’cha” and the tango rhythms of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Ladino Chanukah song. And Joshua Nelson puts an Aretha Franklin/Sam Cooke-esque gospel soul into a foot-thumping version of “I Have a Little Dreidl.”

After Dave Koz’s soulfully sanguine version of “Over the Rainbow,” with its message of hope and light for the Chanukah season, Maya kept shouting, “I like the rainbow. I like the rainbow.”

“Songs in the Key of Hanukkah” moved Miguel more than “Lights”: He actually stopped reading once the music started.

The album has a hip pedigree — it was created and produced by Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Ali G and Borat. Erran is an accomplished composer who scored the music for the Borat movie.

“Songs” contains several genres of music — klezmer, reggae, electronic, pop, tango, hip-hop and rap. The latter two got Miguel’s attention. He and Maya clapped almost in sync throughout Cohen’s funk version of “Rock of Ages,” featuring British music producer and DJ Jules Brookes.

Miguel loved “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah,” with Brookes and Chassidic rapper Y-Love. “It’s got a rap tone,” he said.

Brookes and Cohen teamed up again on “Dreidel.” Miguel’s take: “This one’s good. It’s funkier than usual.”

For the version of “Ocho Kandelikas,” featuring Sephardic singer Yasmin Levy, Miguel offered a running commentary. “Could be a little faster. Wait, it’s getting better … oh, it’s just OK.”

Maya was content to twirl and dip and shake her hips like a young Chanukah Elvis in training. She loved every song and every song loved her.

Miguel’s favorite track on “Songs” was “My Hanukkah (Keep The Fire Alive)” with Y-Love and Dana Kerstein. As soon as the music pulsed through the living room, he said, “I gotta do my worm dance.”

Once the song ended he played it again. I asked him why he liked it so much.

“This one is good,” he replied, in a typical pre-adolescent manner.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s a boyish song.”

Then I asked the ultimate question: “Would you want it on your iPod?”

“Sure,” he answered, without hesitation.

In these modern times, that may be the highest praise possible for these timeless melodies — reconfigured to fit the modern musical tastes of Generation X, Y, Z and beyond, as we all celebrate the primal joys of Chanukah.

“Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert” and “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah” are available from and other retailers.

The PBS special “Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert” will air 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11 on KQED channel 9.

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.