Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly referred to Assyrian-Greek religious persecution of Jews as being part of the Hanukkah story. It was Syrian-Greek persecution.

Not Your Dad's Klezmer LP

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Thousands of music lovers are expected to attend Hanukkah parties in nine cities Saturday night, marking the Jewish holiday by dancing to klezmer-punk, hip-hop in Arabic and folk-rock tunes such as "Applesauce vs. Sour Cream," a campy song about condiments for latkes, a potato pancake that is a Hanukkah staple.

The parties, including one in Washington, are being put on by JDub Records, a Jewish label. The Eight, JDub's name for the multi-city event, is expected to be the biggest contemporary Hanukkah music happening in North America, drawing about 7,000 people.

The Jewish music industry has flourished over the past decade and uses Hanukkah, a minor religious holiday that begins tonight at sundown, as a time to party.

While still tiny in the grand scheme of the overall music business, the movement that some call "new Jewish music" is seen by musicians and fans as thriving. It uses sounds and lyrics and language from the Jewish world present and past. Three labels have started since 1995, including JDub, which opened in 2002 and produced Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu as well as the rock band LeeVees, which is made up of Jewish members of better-known bands and has sold over 10,000 copies of its 2006 album, "Hannukah Rocks."

While the industry and shows go on all year for such bands, the Hanukkah is a key time in the United States because of the Christmas-driven party season. Last year, XM Radio launched a Hannukah station (which runs for the holiday's eight days), and with the increase in contemporary Jewish bands, more concert halls and bars are hosting Hannukah music parties each year.

The proliferation of music has raised a broader question: What is Jewish music? Unlike the Christian music world, most of what's coming out is not God-worshiping. Some bands have Jewish members. In other cases, musicians may be non-Jews, but the words, sounds or performance styles are inspired by Jewish history. Much of it is a blend.

The Washington show at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue includes the LeeVees, Sephardic folk-pop band DeLeon and the Black & White Jacksons, a local band that won a contest to get in. The band's only Jewish angle is that its drummer is Jewish.

"My sole motivation is to play this cool venue," said Michael Medlock, 30, who works by day as an administrative assistant at Smith Barney.

Jacob Harris, JDub vice president, said bands that sign with the label have to be able to proudly explain the link between their music and their Jewishness. (Although, he says, "we leave the identity part to the artist.") But for the Hannukah shows, the connections can be a lot looser.

"They have to feel like they want their music to be played at a Hanukkah party. And that they can be a part of that, and it's not too esoteric," he said.

The what-is-Jewish-music debate is common in Jewish publications and music blogs, including Tzadik, a label started in 1995 by John Zorn, a composer and saxophonist who won a MacArthur Fellowship last year for nurturing and creating experimental music.

"I do not and have never espoused the idea that any music a Jew makes is Jewish music, nor do I pretend to be the sole arbiter of what is Jewish or what is not," he wrote last year in an essay posted on his site about artists he supported. "Clearly the inclusion of music with no overt Jewish content may seem out of place in a series dedicated to Jewish music and it is very gratifying to experience the power the word (or the image) continues to exert on the human spirit. The operational word here is 'music.' "

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