The current iteration of Kitka, whose 'Wintersong' repertoire will include some Jewish music. (Photo/Vincent Louis Carrella)
The current iteration of Kitka, whose 'Wintersong' repertoire will include some Jewish music. (Photo/Vincent Louis Carrella)

Klezmatics, Nefesh Mountain, ‘Jewish Christmas Spectacular’ and more Hanukkah-themed concerts

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While Jews played an essential role in writing America’s holiday songbook, Tin Pan Alley doesn’t have much to offer when Hanukkah rolls around. Jewish tunesmiths such as Irving Berlin, Sammy Kahn and Mel Tormé wanted to go big, and catering to a tiny niche didn’t offer much of a path to the Hit Parade at a time when more than four-fifths of the country was Christian.

But that doesn’t mean Jews have to go without when it comes to finding Hanukkah musical pleasure come December — at least not in the Bay Area, where there’s a tantalizing array of acts presenting music related to the holiday.

No contemporary group has done more to expand the musical possibilities of Hanukkah than The Klezmatics. The Grammy Award-winning New York ensemble returns to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Dec. 17 to perform songs from their 2006 album “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah.” While the market-savvy Tin Pan Alley composers may not have seen much value in rhyming “Hanukkah gelt” with “how I felt,” the Oklahoma troubadour never gave much thought to managing the musical marketplace.

As the author of so many quintessentially American anthems, Guthrie came by his love of Hanukkah the old-fashioned way — via marriage. In the mid-1940s he settled in Coney Island with his wife, principal Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Greenblatt (aka Marjorie Mazia), and their growing brood. He spent much of his time hanging out and collaborating with his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Guthrie ended up writing dozens of songs with Jewish themes, mostly lyrics without musical notation, and the songs went largely unknown and unsung until decades later when Woody and Marjorie’s daughter Nora Guthrie connected with The Klezmatics.

Klezmatics band member Frank London has talked about how Guthrie channeled his daily experiences into his music. “If he’s reading the newspaper and something bothers him, he writes a song,” London said in 2007. “If there’s a Hanukkah celebration, he writes a song. Woody was a really spiritual person, and there are some songs that reflect that. In ‘Holy Ground,’ he wrote, ‘Every spot is holy ground. Every speck of dirt is holy ground. Everywhere I walk is holy ground.’”

The degree to which Guthrie’s songs have entered the Hanukkah lexicon via The Klezmatics can be seen in the works of the progressive bluegrass duo Nefesh Mountain, which will perform at Freight & Salvage Dec. 6  and at Congregation Sherith Israel on Dec. 10. Formed in 2015 by the husband-and-wife team of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, the group has found fertile ground by infusing the high lonesome sound of bluegrass with Jewish themes, such as an arrangement of Frank London’s music for Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Flame.” The band’s latest album, “Songs for the Sparrows,” features powerhouse guest spots by the likes of mandolin maestro Sam Bush, lap steel guitar wizard Jerry Douglas and guitar great Bryan Sutton while mixing in tunes that explore Jewish themes such as “Evermore (Hashkiveinu),” “Tree of Life” and “Piece of the Sun (for Anne Frank).”

American roots music seems particularly apt for a holiday that teeters from disaster and desecration to exultation, an emotional gamut traversed by blues guitarist and vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood. Best known for his work with Sway Machinery and the Book of J project with the late vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg, he returns to the Bay Area to perform two shows Dec. 11 at SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab. The solo sets focus on music from his 2021 Reboot Records album “A Great Miracle: Jeremiah Lockwood’s Guitar Soli Chanukah Record,” a project inspired by guitar legend John Fahey’s 1968 album “The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Record.” With one track for each night of Hanukkah, “A Great Miracle” features Lockwood blues-ifying eight songs from the Hanukkah canon.

The blues will also be on the program at the Back Room in Berkeley on Dec. 24, when veteran blues pianist Sam Rudin, aka Hurricane Sam, presents his fifth annual “Merry Christmas from a Jewish Atheist Pianist” program. He hasn’t made up his mind yet whether he’s a jazzy bluesman or a bluesy jazz cat, but in the meantime, Rudin possesses a driving left hand and a deep feel for the grooves that make the blues ideal music for celebration.

Of course, Jewish roots music can put the neshamah in Hanukkah, too. The Bay Area’s Baymele klezmer trio brings a program of recently rediscovered klezmer gems and original compositions to St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany as part of the Calliope concert series on Dec. 18. Featuring Matthew Stein on violin and viola, Dmitri Gaskin on accordion and piano and longtime Rupa and the April Fishes cellist Misha Khalikulov, the group is rooted in the secular celebratory music of Ashkenazi Jewry while also drawing on related musical branches from Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian and Hungarian folk music traditions.

Listening to Jewish music in church might seem out of place, but the powerhouse all-women vocal ensemble Kitka has long made a habit of dropping songs gleaned from far-flung corners of the Jewish world into the repertoire. The a cappella group plays its annual Wintersongs concert series with stops at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere (Dec. 9), Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento (Dec. 10), St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park (Dec. 11), St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland (Dec. 16-17) and San Francisco’s Old First Presbyterian Church (Dec. 18). Long directed by Berkeley’s Shira Cion, who is Jewish, the latest Kitka iteration includes Kelly Atkins, Janet Kutulas, Stacey Barnett, Barbara Byers, Erin Lashnits Herman, Hannah Levy, Maclovia Quintana and Katya Schoenberg.

This year’s program “is loosely structured to reflect the themes of pre-Christian Ukrainian solstice carols, with songs about the creation of the world, the sun, the moon, the stars and the rain, concluding with pleas for peace,” Cion told J. in an interview, noting that the Wintersongs includes “Geshem, Geshem,” a Hebrew song “that falls, no pun intended, into the rain section.”

For a full-on collision between Jewish songwriting and Christmas mishegas there’s “A Very Jewish Christmas Spectacular,” a multimedia revue that celebrates the composers who created the secular seasonal soundtrack. Presented at the Fillmore on Dec. 8, the show has greatly expanded after last year’s hastily produced trial run. Featuring an all-Jewish cast of comedians, musicians, dancers and surprise guests, the show tells the story of the Jewish immigrants who composed many of the holiday season’s definitive songs.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.