Time was that when an American Jewish entertainer started closing in on retirement, he’d pay a little overdue homage to his kin fun di alte heim. After all, a lifetime of shrimp cocktails, surf & turf, ham ’n’ eggs, Friday night concerts, and the odd shiksa trophy wife or two ought to be crowned, at least for appearance’s sake, with an album of “Jewish classics” proving our star’s pride in his “Jewish roots.”
Never mind that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a “Jewish” album. Heck, even Connie Francis (Italian) issued an album of Yiddish songs and Johnny Mathis took a turn at “Kol Nidre”! If only Sam Cook had taken the bait!
Major Jewish operatic soloists like Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker dutifully took their turns at reviving the riffs laid down by the likes of Yossele Rosenblatt and Moishe Oisher, the premier “Cantorial soloists” of the early 20th century. But, for my money, perhaps the greatest collection of Jewish songs by an American Jewish pop-icon is still Al Jolson’s album from the late 1940s. I can’t remember the title, but I do recall the cover — Jolie looking solemn in his tallis and cantorial yarmulke. How I loved that album!
My kid brother and I would lie on the rug next to our folks’ “hi-fi” replaying Jolson’s version of “Kol Nidre” endlessly. Until, out of fatigue, we took refuge in his other LPs for his renditions of “Mammy” and “Sewanee.”
Well, I hate to report, it seems that the days of this sort of Jewish “heritage of song” album are about over. Bob Dylan, perhaps the most influential Jew in 20th century American pop culture, now at the twilight of an illustrious career, has graced his fans with, of all things… an album of Christmas favorites titled Christmas in the Heart.
And I wonder: What is this? Déjà vu all over again?
Didn’t Bobby work through his Christian phase in the early ’80s, astonishing his fans with such stellar tunes as “Ya Gotta Serve Somebody” and other forgettable old-timey gospel offerings? And didn’t we watch him do his “baal teshuvah” thing under Chabad auspices, no less, complete with tefillin at the Kotel? And didn’t he offer a kapparah for his “Jew for Jesus” period by penning that classic of Zionist-Rock theory, “The Neighborhood Bully?” After all this — and his kid’s well-documented Bar Mitzvah — after all this…a career-capping collection of Christmas songs?
Now, at first I thought it might be the old Dylan satire at work. And my hopes were aroused when the CD arrived in the mail. The cover painting is an old-fashioned image of red-cheeked folks riding in a horse-drawn sleigh in a “Winter Wonderland.” But the flip side, revealed only if you pull out the cover from its frame, depicts a raven-haired babe right out of Vargas’s Playboy paintings of the ’60s (I noticed one once while looking for an article on a theological topic I was researching in college — honest!)
Before pushing my fingers into my eye sockets, I noticed that she’s dressed in a skimpy, low-cut Santa suit complete with black garters and mid-thigh stockings.
“Aha!” I thought. “He’s gonna pull our legs with a send-up of Christmas schmaltz!”
But not so fast! Might we expect, maybe, that Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart would be an astute selection of mid-20th century Tin Pan Alley jingles written to alleviate the angst of Jewish assimilation? What better way than by transforming the Christian savior’s birthday back to its origins — a pagan celebration of the Anglo-Saxon winter solstice!
Wouldn’t it be the height of edginess for Dylan to have issued an album of Jewishly penned tunes that helped to turn America’s Christmas into a celebration of eggnog, skiing, and consumerism? Something American Jews could really relate to. God knows there’s plenty to choose from! But only one such tune, co-written by Mel Torme, appears here (“Christmas Song,” a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”
I, for one, would pay to hear that Dylan voice — these days sounding like a cross-cut hand saw attacking a sheet of plywood — warble out a perennial Jewish contribution like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” But that classic is mysteriously omitted as well, its place apparently filled by an obscure ukulele-pedal guitar Hawaiian number titled “Christmas Island.” Ever hear of that one? Not I!
Alas, Dylan ignores all of the ways he might have spurred reflection on the Jewish element of the American Christmas. Offered instead are 15 selections that alternate between banal “secular Christmas” jingles (two of which are about Santa) and the real deal Christmas carols that extol Baby Jesus in his manger and other themes that move deeply into the Christian sentiments at the heart of Christmas. Not only does Dylan do these more than justice, he even sings some verses of “Come All Ye Faithful” in, get this — Latin!
Look, Bob Dylan can do what he wants. But, as a consumer, I have two complaints. First, his selection of tunes virtually ignores the contributions of Jewish writers and composers to the making of the contemporary American Christmas. And second, even his selection of spiritually moving standards raises questions. Why include the saccharine “Do You Hear What I Hear?” while omitting “Silent Night?” This is simply not a well-planned offering.
While listening, I kept asking myself: “Is he kidding? Is he broke? Did he have all his investments with Madoff?” I have no answer and remain puzzled.
But one well-worn Dylan message comes through loud and clear in this CD. Get ready Jewish rock fans, ’cause l’chaims, they are a-changin’!