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NYFOS Holiday Show "A Goyishe Christmas to You!" Celebrates Christmas Songs Written by Jewish Composers

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Dec 06, 2014 01:22 PM EST

If you've encountered too many saccharine arrangements of Christmas carols blaring in the malls, if the unrelenting sound of jingle bells on holiday-themed commercials is really getting to you, New York Festival of Song has the perfect antidote: "A Goyishe Christmas to You!"--their irreverent program of Christmas songs written by Jewish composers.

This NYFOS holiday tradition will return to HENRY's Restaurant in New York City on Monday, December 15 at 10:00 pm. "Goyishe Christmas" is the brainchild of Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, co-founders of NYFOS.

Like many great ideas, it started as a joke. As Blier describes it in his program notes: "Michael Barrett came up with the title. We were making our first recording... and we were thinking about future recording projects. All of a sudden Michael said, 'Hey, we ought to make a Christmas album and call it A Goyishe Christmas to You!' It became a joke that we rolled out at cocktail parties, always to great effect."

Many years later, the idea took shape as part of the NYFOS After Hours cabaret series held at HENRY's. As Blier writes, "Henry Rinehart (the eponymous restaurateur-owner) said, 'What are you thinking about for December?' I blurted out, 'Well, we always talked about doing A Goyishe Christmas to You!' Henry's eyes lit up. 'Christmas songs by Jewish writers! We're doing it!'"

"Goyishe Christmas" debuted in 2010 to a capacity crowd. Looking over the program that Blier has selected for the 2014 show, it's surprising to note how many familiar Christmas carols were actually written by Jewish composers--among them "White Christmas," "Silver Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Winter Wonderland."

"I think with Goyishe Christmas, what we have is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar things, some comic things, some things done in an unusual way," Blier told me during a phone conversation earlier this week.

For instance?

"We do "Winter Wonderland" as a gay duet," Blier said. "There's a reason for it--I really didn't know "Winter Wonderland" particularly; I didn't grow up [listening to] it. My first recording of it that I got was as an adult; and it was the Judds, and all I really knew about Winter Wonderland was that it was a same-sex duet. I didn't have two women... so I did it with two men. And I really didn't realize until I did it that, you know, two guys singing "He'll say are you married, we'll say no sir! But you can do the job when you're in town!"--during this whole period of marriage equality--was really very touching."

Same-sex courtship in "Winter Wonderland" is certainly a novel spin on this holiday standard, but the real showpiece of the concert is likely to be "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," sung in Yiddish by cantor Joshua Breitzer.

"What's charming about the setting is that there are just enough words that you recognize, like the line 'Oy, ist der a schlemiel!'" Blier said.

"Rudolph" was written by Johnny Marks, a Jewish composer who specialized in Christmas songs, including "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." So it is perhaps appropriate that Breitzer gives a uniquely Jewish interpretation to "Rudolph":

"The whole idea of a red-nosed reindeer--sure, the song mentions reindeer and Santa Claus, but you can read it a bit as a Jewish allegory," Breitzer said. "If you think about it, here's this reindeer that feels out of place, unaccepted, is trying to fit in, wishes that there was a place for him. And all of a sudden, he is plucked out by the Big Guy himself, saying, 'I have a special job for you--precisely because you're so different.' This goes along very well with much of the Jewish narrative, and being the Chosen People."

The singers of "Goyishe Christmas," accompanied by Blier on the piano, will give their unique interpretations of many other Yuletide songs on December 15. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and tenor Ben Bliss will make their first appearances in this winter tradition, while NYFOS welcomes back Goyishe stalwarts including Breitzer, John Brancy, Joshua Jeremiah and Alex Mansoori, with clarinetist Alan Kay providing a touch of Klezmer authenticity.

More information about the NYFOS After Hours cabaret series is available at nyfos.org.

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TagsNYFOS, New York Festival of Song, A Goyishe Christmas to You, Steven Blier, Michael Barrett, Joshua Breitzer, HENRY's Restaurant, Christmas songs, Christmas carols, NYFOS After Hours, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer