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The Klezmatics plan a happy Hanukkah at Disney Hall. Who's bringing the latkes?

Alan Roche

The whole concept of Hanukkah traditions is a bit sketchy, as Lorin Sklamberg, singer-accordionist-etc. of the Jewish-music-and-beyond group the Klezmatics, reminds. The menorah, the dreidel, all that sure. But as most know, this was for a couple of millennia a minor holiday at best, commemorating the Maccabees’ 2nd century BCE retaking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the “miracle” of one day’s worth of oil keeping the temple’s eternal flame lit for a full eight days. Only relatively recently did it take on any real cultural prominence, as he says, “for whatever reasons, commercial or the proximity to Christmas.”

“You can’t make that go away,” he continues. “But you can embrace the things you like about it to create culture around it that reflects the positive aspects of what it is -- overcoming adversity, celebrating your family. All those things. Can’t ever do enough of that.”

With that in mind, he hopes that another budding tradition might take hold: The Klezmatics’ holiday show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Monday will be the third seasonal appearance they've made there in recent years.

“Would be nice if we were able to do it on a regular basis,” he says, noting that he grew up in L.A., though has lived in New York for many years now. “They do great outreach, there will be a lot of people there. Looking forward to seeing family and friends and all that.”

There are a few challenges to giving a Jewish-themed holiday show, of course. As he was saying, there’s not a lot of traditional Hanukkah music out there, though the band helped address that a few years ago by composing music to previously unused lyrics written by Woody Guthrie while raising his half-Jewish children. (See a video for the Guthrie-Klezmatics song "Hanukkah Gelt" below.)

“A lot of [Jewish music] is, traditionally, celebration music,” he says. “I think people are expecting some sort of a party. We do play stuff specific to the holiday, and stuff we composed ourselves around the Woody Guthrie lyrics.”

The current tour also celebrates the release of the two-CD “Live at Town Hall” album and the DVD of the documentary “On Hallowed Ground”, which in turn celebrate the group’s impressive history. The album was recorded at the New York theater in 2006 during a concert marking the Klezmatics’ 20th anniversary and, with help from a couple dozen friends and associates, spanned the very large artistic sweep the combo has managed: from Eastern European wedding music to a pairing of Jewish prayer song and Christian gospel (The “Brother Moses Suite” of “Eyliyohu Hanovi” and “Elijah Rock,” the latter featuring guest singer Joshua Nelson), from the Guthrie material to edgy jazz (generally led by clarinetist Matt Darriau and trumpeter (Frank London), from patter song (“Man in a Hat,” as seen in this video) to theater music (a suite from The Dybbuk, a mid-‘90s collaboration with Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner). 

So what is Sklamberg’s favorite Hanukkah tradition, such as they are? 

“I guess the culinary part of it,” he says, specifically noting that he “actually likes” latkes, the delicious European-rooted potato pancakes, as if he needed to defend that choice. “A lot of Jewish food, you know, are things you only eat once a year and they can be a bit indulgent. There’s something really nice about that. It’s not easy to make good latkes, to come up with something that’s really great and people enjoy. And the others in the band would agree.”

He enjoys making latkes, but sighs, “I haven’t found my perfect recipe yet.”

How about it, readers? Any recipes we should pass along?