Bits and Pieces

(The contents herein may or may not resemble actual events in my life)

And now for something completely different...

Oh, look: I have not, in fact, been better at keeping up my blog than I was last year.

(This is why I don't make New Year's resolutions, so I don't have to say I broke them. And yet, the fact remains that I have not, in fact, been better at keeping up my blog than I was last year.)

In my defense, I may possibly have been a little distracted lately.

Yeah. Well...Let me make it up to you! A friend of mine has written a book that released today, and I figure if I share it with you all will be forgiven because it's just that good:


"An amazing first novel." —Sydney Landon, New York Times bestselling author

In this sparkling debut novel, Mary Ann Marlowe introduces a hapless scientist who's swept off her feet by a rock star—but is it love or just a chemical reaction?...
Biochemist Eden Sinclair has no idea that the scent she spritzed on herself before leaving the lab is designed to enhance pheromones. Or that the cute, grungy-looking guy she meets at a gig that evening is Adam Copeland. As in the Adam Copeland international rock god and object of lust for a million women. Make that a million and one. By the time she learns the truth, she s already spent the (amazing, incredible) night in his bed.

Suddenly Eden, who's more accustomed to being set up on disastrous dates by her mom, is going out with a gorgeous celebrity who loves how down-to-earth and honest she is. But for once, Eden isn't being honest. She can't bear to reveal that this overpowering attraction could be nothing more than seduction by science. And the only way to know how Adam truly feels is to ditch the perfume—and risk being ditched in turn.

Smart, witty, and sexy, Some Kind of Magic is an irresistibly engaging look at modern relationships why we fall, how we connect, and the courage it takes to trust in something as mysterious and unpredictable as love.

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Okay, that's the official stuff. But this is my blog, so here's my take:

I had the privilege of being one of Mary Ann's betas, and I can tell you that the book is a joy. It's sexy and engaging and witty (especially about the music world, and even more particularly about music fandom, which is where I met Mary Ann, and let me tell you, she knows whereof she speaks!) and genuinely romantic. The book also raises fascinating questions of the impact of one's upbringing and levels of honesty, in the most natural and unobtrusive way, and the main characters are people with whom I would love to spend any amount of time. (Speaking of which, where can I find me an Adam?) (I mean, seriously, where?)

And as though that weren't enough, there's a giveaway to help launch this gem, in which one winner will receive a $50 Amazon OR Book Depository Gift Card (International), and three winners will win a signed copy of SOME KIND OF MAGIC (US only). (Click on this nice clicky link here to enter.)

So, you know, if you are a sane and sensible person who, like me, is looking for a way to duck out of the world just now for a bit, this is a really good place to duck into!
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Let us turn our thoughts today...

Video by MaccabeatsVideos and Naturally 7

Some dreams need work to hold onto--let's keep working on this one, okay?

As George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

(Source: Touro Synagogue)
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10, 9, 8...
Well, 2016 was quite a year, and not in a good way. We lost far too many special creative people, and rediscovered some deep and unattractive rifts in the world's social fabric.

Still, it's over. For 2017, whatever happens in the world...

"Auld Lang Syne," performed by the BBC Symphony, Chorus, and Singers (and I think the audience, too):

Video posted by Kromgols kanal
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Yes, it's still Chanukah!

Have a very traditional song: "Al Hanisim"; words from an extra paragraph inserted into the daily prayers on Chanukah (and Purim), melody by Dov Frimer, sung by Shira Kline:

Video by ShiraKline

Or if you are not feeling quite so traditional, here's "Light Up the Night" by the Ein Prat Fountainheads (which actually quotes words from "Al Hanisim"):

Video by einpratfountainheads

Well. The lyrics for "Al Hanisim" are very traditional, anyway--as I said above, the words for this song are those of the introductory phrases of paragraphs inserted into daily prayers on Chanukah and Purim, and it is an expression of thanksgiving for the salvations those two Rabbinic holidays celebrate:

"And (we thank You) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”

(Note that miracles and salvation come before victories and battles. Because order of importance.)

As such, we date it back to the Gaonic period, possibly the 8th or 9th century.

The melody, by Dov Frimer, dates back only to 1974, when it debuted at the Chassidic Song Festival (which makes it traditional if you were in high school at that time), but it's among the most popular melodies for those words, being very danceable. (Although there are other melodies for the same words moving up on it...)

As for the Fountainheads, they are all students (or former students) of Israel's Ein Prat Institute, an academy that creates programs to unite Jews across the religious and political spectrum. As a member (Ahava Katrin) put it:

You can always find something controversial and gray and ugly and problematic [to write] if you want. But that is not what we want to get into. [...] What our music is about is connecting to Judaism and the holidays and making people smile.

Sounds good to me!
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Not tonight, but give it a couple of days

"It's Just Another New Year's Eve" by Barry Manilow and Marty Panzer, sung by Barry Manilow:

Video posted by egaygigi

Yeah, yeah, I know, Barry Manilow, yadayada. But did you listen to the song? Because it's really good. Try listening to the same song sung by Lea Salonga:

Video posted by LeaSalonga--Topic (Provided to YouTube by Sony Music Entertainment)

Beautiful, right? Very much like something you'd expect to find in a Broadway show or in an album of pop standards. People say that all Manilow's songs sound the same, but my theory is that he sings in a very stylized way even though it sounds simply conversational, and it's a strong enough style that the songs he sings sound more alike than different. (Not that he doesn't have a definite music writing style, but the songs on his albums that he DIDN'T write sound as much like Barry Manilow as the ones he did. That's a neat trick.)

Not to mention that right about now, I find it really nice to hear someone sing "We'll get through this...we'll be just fine," don't you?

I can't find anything definitive about Marty Panzer's heritage--or really anything about him before the age of 18, when he started writing jingles with Manilow--even on his own website. I'm tempted to say that he's Jewish just based on his name, but that would be sloppy thinking--and besides, it doesn't necessarily follow. I'll just add that he's regarded as a master lyricist, he collaborates often with Manilow, and has, as his website puts it, garnered "35 gold and platinum albums, four BMI million-play awards, a 3 million-play award, and record sales in excess of 70 million units."

Of course, Barry Manilow himself is Jewish. His musical output is prodigious--his songwriting catalog alone runs 17 pages at the Songwriters Hall of Fame--and he's a tireless performer. He's picked up two Emmys, a Grammy, three American Music Awards, and a Special Tony, as well as a 2009 Clio for his earlier work in commercials. At one point, five of his albums were simultaneously on the best-seller charts, he's had worlwide sales of over 80 million records, and both Radio & Records and Billboard have ranked him as the top Adult Contemporary chart artist of all time. His recent musical, Harmony, picked up 10 BroadwayWorld Awards for its 2014 Los Angeles run. And his most recent album, "My Dream Duets," picked up a 2016 Grammy nomination.
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Still Chanukah!

So here's another Chanukah song: "Light One Candle," by Peter Yarrow, sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

Video from the PBS Holiday Concert, posted by Loren Newsom

(The top comment on this particular YouTube is by the producer and director of the PBS show, how awesome is that?)

Peter, Paul, and Mary debuted "Light One Candle" during their 1982 Holiday Concert at Carnegie Hall. If you keep count, you will see that the lyrics "light one candle" repeat exactly eight times--and if you watch carefully, you can see that the children light one candle each time that phrase is repeated, making them a human menorah.

Being a Chanukah song is enough, of course, but we can do a little better. The songwriter, Peter Yarrow, is Jewish, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. (Still getting the job done!) As part of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, Yarrow wrote or co-wrote some of the group's best known songs (including "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and "Day is Done"); during the trio's 48 years together they picked up five Grammys (plus another 10 Grammy nominations) and 2 Emmy nominations (for Peter, Paul and Mommy, Too and for Lifelines LIVE).

The group was known for its activism in addition to its music--they sang at the 1969 March on Washington and were involved in the anti-Vietnam protests--and they have continued that activism throughout their lives and careers. Yarrow himself was prominent in the campaign to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s, and performed with his son and daughter during the Occupy Wall Street protests. As evidenced by the lyrics of "Light One Candle," Yarrow's Jewish roots serve as a wellspring for his political beliefs.

(I can certainly see where he's coming from there--it's the source of my liberal leanings, for sure.)

So Happy Chanukah--go light a candle!
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Is it too late to ask? Or too early? Or...

"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" by Frank Loesser, sung by Barbra Streisand:

Video posted by ChristmasCottage's channel

According to the Songfacts blog, this is the second most popular song for the end of the year, and it is "the kind of ballad that is usually sung in a melancholy tone because the singer instinctively knows the answer (you're probably busy)." Fits.

So let's undercut the melancholy with this playful version sung by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt:

Video by HelloGiggles/Zooey Deschanel

Maybe it's that they're clearly having so much fun, or maybe it's that it's a duet, but one way or another, that doesn't sound sad or wistful to me at all--they sound like the answer they're expecting is, "Spending it with you, you idiot!"

Deschanel is wrong about one thing, though--the original isn't by Nancy Wilson, whose recording of the song came out in 1965. The song was written by Frank Loesser (about whom I have already written this year) in 1947 as an independent song,

(Which leads me to believe that Gordon-Levitt has a penchant for Loesser's music--which is not a complaint, just an observation!)

and it was first recorded by The Orioles a couple of years later.


So let's have a little more about Loesser. In addition to the two Tonys for Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed, he won a Pulitzer for How To Succeed and picked up another two Tony nominations along the line; and in addition to the Oscar for "Baby, It's Cold Outside" he picked up another 4 Oscar nominations for Best Original Song, including one for "Thumbelina" from Hans Christian Anderson, for which he wrote the score.

Video posted by GrownUpKidsChannel

Nevertheless, the members of his immediate family were far more annoyed than pleased with Frank's success--his father was a piano teacher and his older brother was a well-known pianist and music critic, and they were, as Loesser's daughter put it, "very snobbish German lovers of classical music. They thought that popular music was trash." But, she hastened to add, they loved him anyway, and he them. They just didn't think much of his career--but how lucky we are that he chose to go his own way!
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Tonight will be the third night of Chanukah, and since my family has not yet had latkes at dinner, I bring what I hope will be some inspiration--the Maccabeats singing "Latke Recipe," lyrics by Spencer Garfield:

Video by Maccabeats Videos

There is also a demonstration video version:

Video by Maccabeats Videos

The song on which this parody is based, "Shut Up and Dance," was written by members of Walk the Moon with Ben Berger and Ryan McMahon, and I have no information on their respective religious identities. The "Latke Recipe" lyrics were (mostly) written by Spencer Garfield, the Religious School Music teacher of Temple Emanu-El of Marblehead, MA. It seems safe to conclude that he is Jewish--and in any case it's a Chanukah song!

In case you don't know, latkes are fried potato pancakes that are traditionally served on Chanukah. Well. Potato pancakes are obviously not that ancient a tradition, seeing that potatoes are a New World food, but FRIED, that is reasonably old--eating fried foods, particularly those fried in olive oil, commemorates the Chanukah miracle. To wit: When the Jewish revolt against the Selucid Empire succeeded in retaking the Temple (165 BCE), it was cleansed and rededicated. The great Menorah in the Temple could only be lit with olive oil specially pressed and kept pure for that purpose, and the process took eight days, but they could find only one container of the needed oil. The story goes that the one flask of oil--one day's worth--burned for the entire eight days, until the new oil was ready. So on Chanukah we light chanukiot (eight-branched Chanukah menorahs, as distinguished from the great seven-branched Menorah that stood in the Temple), and we eat sufganiyot (deep fried jelly donuts, yummmm!) or latkes (also yummmm!) (basically almost anything deep fried is yummmm! except for candy bars or butter or like that), potatoes being something that Jews in shtetls in Eastern Europe and Russia could easily come by. If you want to join the celebration by making some latkes yourself, there are about a bazillion recipes out there, not forgetting this one, so just pick one that appeals to you and includes frying in oil, because frying in oil is the WHOLE POINT. (None of your fake baked alternatives!)

Cooking tip from a very non-expert cook: If you want to try the recipe in this song, I would suggest you wring out the grated potatoes in a towel first, or at least drain them as well as you can, because water in hot oil spatters and makes a terrible mess--and the latkes won't brown as easily if they are wet. But it's just a suggestion! Fresh latkes always taste excellent, especially with either sour cream or apple sauce.
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Although it's been said many times, many ways...

"The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, sung by Paul McCartney:

Video by Paul McCartney

And sung by Mel Tormé and Judy Garland:

Video posted by

"The Christmas Song," was written by Tormé and Wells when then were 19 and 22 respectively. According to Tormé, it was written in about 45 minutes during a heat wave, sparked by an attempt by Wells to cool off by thinking winter thoughts. (This seems to be a not-uncommon trigger for the writing of Christmas songs, does it not?)

This is probably the best known song by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, both of whom were Jewish.

Although Tormé is best known as a jazz singer (he was dubbed "The Velvet Fog") and for his many appearances on TV shows, he wrote or co-wrote more than 300 songs, about half of which he wrote with Wells. In his clearly abundant spare time he managed to write 5 books and to become a licensed airplane pilot.

Wells, born Robert Levinson, also wrote lyrics with many other musicians (including Duke Ellington and Henry Mancini), picking up a number of Oscar nominations, and was a scriptwriter and producer as well as a music director and soundtrack writer, winning six Emmys for his television work.

To all those celebrating, "...merry Christmas to you."
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It's the first night of Chanukah!

In honor of which, I bring you two--yes, two!--Chanukah songs.

The first is "Candlelight," sung by the Maccabeats:

Video by Uri Westrich

The melody is by Taio Cruz (although he thought it was for a song titled "Dynamite"), and he is not (so far as I know) Jewish. The parody lyrics, however, are by two members of the Maccabeats (an a cappella group formed of current and past Yeshiva University students), David Block and Immanuel Shalev, and they are Jewish.

In case you were wondering about the lines in "Candlelight" that run:

We say "ma'oz tzur"
Oh, yeah, for all eight nights,

that is my second song, a very traditional Chanukah song.

"Ma'oz Tzur," sung by students of Israel's Technion*:

Video by Technion

This traditional melody for "Ma'oz Tzur" has been identified as mostly likely having been adapted from an old German folk song, possibly sometime in the 15th century.

(Okay, yes, yes, I know. There's a lot of "maybe" and "perhaps" about that. But hey, there isn't going to be a whole lot of certainty about 15th century folk song melodies. It is, after all, a teensy bit before recording equipment was invented. And while there was a sort of musical notation in Europe as far back as that, that was for Church music; there weren't a whole lot of folk songs being notated. If any.)

The lyrics go back even farther--they are thought to have been written in the 13th century and we even know the poet's first name, as he wrote it into the hymn as an acrostic: The first letters of the first five stanzas spell out Mordechai--מרדכי in Hebrew. The first stanza expresses a hope that the Temple will once more be restored, and the sixth and last stanza (which opens with another acrostic: chazak--חזק in Hebrew--which means "be strong") again returns to the hope for salvation and return. Each of the four paragraphs in between refers to a time when Jews have been saved in the past: From slavery in Egypt; from captivity in Babylonia; from slaughter in the Purim story; and from the Hellenized Syrians in the Chanukah story.

The song is generally sung right after lighting the menorah (or, more exactly, the chanukiah--eight branches plus an extra, rather than the seven branches in the great menorah in the Temple). Part of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah is to enjoy the light of the menorah, and standing around it while singing makes sure we don't run off and ignore it.

Now go have some latkes or sufganiyot! Chag sameach (happy holiday)!


* In case you are unfamiliar with the institution, Technion can be described as the MIT of Israel. These students certainly sing Ma'oz Tzur way, WAY better than I can--and they are appropriately ingenious with their instruments. And just look at how they light their Chanukah menorah!:

And btw--one of my nieces is a student at Technion now! Chanukah Sameach, Rivka... :))
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