Just 18 (chai!) years ago, one of the best, if not the best, Hanukkah albums came out. “Hanukkah Rocks,” a delightful pun and a the truest of assertions, was released in 2005 by the Jewish band the LeeVees.
Now, that incredible album is getting a well-deserved spotlight on one very special (and very tiny) platform. In a special episode released today of the widely beloved NPR music show Tiny Desk, which has featured live performances from the nation’s biggest pop and indie stars, the LeeVees got together to perform some highlights of that album. Retired Tiny Desk founder and former All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen, a fan of the band, joined them for the festive video, released a few hours ahead of the start of Hanukkah.
The LeeVees are a collaboration between Guster’s Adam Gardner and hockey band The Zambonis’ Dave Schneider, who met while touring together. After realizing they both are Jewish, and that they both grew up embarrassed by the dire state of American Hanukakh music, the LeeVees was born. The album they put together is both funny and informative, full of the specificities of growing up Jewish in a land where Christmas reigns supreme, and includes some personal anecdotes from their childhood.
For their Tiny Desk performance, Gardner and Schneider are flanked by fellow LeeVees (and members of the beloved Jewish kids’ band the Macaroons) Daniel Saks on keys and vocals and Shawn Fogel (also a Zambonis band member) on bass and vocals. Consider this your friendly reminder to also re-listen to their excellent Jewish music album.
Also adding to the perfect sound were DJ and musician Gabrielle Lakshmi on vocals, percussion and toy piano, who proves to be a master unveiler of kugel, and the Stepkids’ Tim Walsh on drums and vocals, whose “love” holiday sweater and matching pair of glasses are fabulous.
The six musicians performed four songs from the album: “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” which poses the immortal question of how you spell Hanukkah in English (the answer in Hebrew is simple, of course). That question has inspired quite a few Hanukah songs, like this delightful tune from Erica Rabner and this year’s very special Six13 Taylor Swift parody, but none have been as rock’n’roll as The LeeVees’ tune.
Then they did “Latke Clan,” which feels like a very classic holiday tune, inviting people to join said latke cohort. It’s joyous and full of light but with a little Jewish humor, too. Next up is another immortal Hanukkah question in musical form, “Apple Sauce vs. Sour Cream,” which talks about potato lawyers and contracts and the huge, enormous big decision of “what to put on your potato cake.” There’s also a helpful reminder to take your Lactaid if you need.
Finally, they sing “Kugel,” a mournful song about the low calorie alterations Dave’s mother made to her once delicious kugel after she divorced his father.
What makes this Hanukkah Tiny Desk installment so unique is probably just the sheer amount of noshes all around. Aside from the Hanukkah banners that exemplify the different spellings of the holiday, colorful dreidel-shaped decor and electric and wooden menorahs (no fire hazards here), there’s every type of Ashkenazi Jewish treat. Pickles get passed around during the intimate show, where you can also see latkes, sour cream, bagels and schmear, and a particularly appetizing cornflake-topped kugel made by Tiny Desk producer Maia Stern.
“Juvenille, Taylor Swift, none of them eat during their sets,” Dave jokes, and honestly, is there anything more Jewish than noshing while playing music? There’s something so charming about watching the NPR staff sneak in for some latkes as the band plays.
At a time when many of us have fraught feelings over the state of being Jewish in this country, The LeeVees and NPR’s Tiny Desk remind us of the thrilling idiosyncratic delights of being a Jew in America. Happy Hanukkah, however you spell it.