This is the 83rd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the late 1910s, Samuel Goldfarb was choral director at Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, where his brother Isreal Goldfarb was rabbi. Together and on their own, the Goldfarb brothers wrote hundreds of songs, many of which were later taught at Jewish schools. Of all their songs, two stand out as their biggest contributions to Jewish music.
The first is “Shalom Aleichem,” a centuries-old song for which Israel Goldfarb wrote a melody in 1918. In 1963, Israel Goldfarb recalled that because the song became so ingrained in Jewish culture, he rarely got credit for it. “The popularity of the melody traveled not only throughout this country but throughout the world,” he said in a letter. “Many people came to believe that the song was handed down from Mt. Sinai by Moses.”
The other song the Goldfarb brothers contributed has been ever more ubiquitous, such that even non-Jewish people know the song:
I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay
And when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, then dreidel I shall play
It has a lovely body, with legs so short and thin
When it gets all tired, it drops and then I win!
Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, with leg so short and thin
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, it drops and then I win!
My dreidel’s always playful, it loves to dance and spin
A happy game of dreidel, come play now let’s begin
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, it loves to dance and spin
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, come play now let’s begin
The song has been known by several names, including “The Dreidel Song,” “I Have A Little Dreidel,” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” Samuel Goldfarb composed the music as an accompaniment to lyrics written by Samuel Schlomo Grossman, whom Samuel Goldfarb had met while working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of New York in the latter part of the 1920s. They recorded a version with Arthur Fields in 1927.
A few years later, Samuel Goldfarb left his family New York to go to Seattle, where he started a new family with a new wife. Samuel Goldfarb’s son Myron Gordon told The Jewish Journal that in leaving his family, Goldfarb forfeited having a bigger career in music:
He had to conceal that period of his life because he was in effect concealing his divorce from my mother… It’s my theory that his career really fell down a few notches. He did a little composing and he did a lot of arranging songs for the children and for the temple, but it’s my theory that because he had to bury this part of his past, he did not proceed with all cylinders.
Though the song is now known by most Jewish kids (and a fair share of non-Jewish ones, too), “The Dreidel Song” was never a hit. There was no definitive recording. Its spread was more of an organic one, and according to Gordon, it “took some time to catch on.” It took a quarter of a century, until the 1950s, “when Hanukkah was becoming more commercial and parallel to Christmas.”
There are more than a few holiday albums aimed at (and featuring) children that have “The Dreidel Song,” including “Nick Jr. Winter Wonderland,” released in 2006.
I share that only to familiarize anyone who might not know the song. For the purposes of this post, I will exclude these recordings, as they mainly sound the same and these kids deserve a pass. Besides, there are several other ones that stand out, whether because they are creative or are just plain weird.
“Dreidel Rap ’89” was recorded in 1989 by Craig Snider, who released it under the name “Abraham.” He and his manager Craig Springer conceived the idea of recording the song as a foil to the traditional Hebrew music that Snider had heard as a kid. He told The Chicago Reader:
We would go to temple and it would be all dark—all these minor keys and kind of depressing… I thought it would be fun to take a stab at having a Hanukkah song that was fun and upbeat and had some of the sensibility of some of the fun Christmas music that’s out there.
The resulting “Dreidel Rap ’89” built upon elements of “The Dreidel Song,” but ended up sounding more contemporary and cheerful. After being interviewed by The Chicago Reader in 2014, Snider decided to reissue “Dreidel Rap ’89.”
“Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” was a holiday-themed “South Park” album released in 1999. Most of the songs focused on Christmas, but in “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” Jewish character Kyle Broflovski taught his brother Ike about the Dreidel. Or at least he tried to, before Cartman and other characters showed up.
Da Vinci’s Notebook was an a capella group, though the members sometimes incorporated bass and guitar into their comedic performances. Appearing on the 2000 album, “The Life and Times of Mike Fanning,” Da Vinci’s Notebook’s “The Dreidel Song” sounded as if the earnest grunge-inspired bands of the late ’90s recorded their most sincere tribute to the traditional dreidel song. It was weird, and almost six minutes long, but it was worth the ride.
Australian Jewish punk band Yidcore carved a niche for itself by playing punk versions of Israeli and Jewish songs. The band’s 2003 release, “The Adam Slander EP,” included a variation on Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” and a short, sped-up take on the “The Dreidel Song. And by short, I mean about 15 seconds.
Barenaked Ladies’ “I Have A Little Dreidel” appeared on the band’s 2004 album, “Barenaked for the Holidays.” At less than a minute long, it was short, but there were shorter tracks on there. The highlight of the album, though, was the band’s cover of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Kenny Ellis recast “The Dreidel Song” as a big band swing song, “Swingin’ Dreidel,” on his 2005 album, “Hanukkah Swings.” There’s some mean flute-playing on it, and might be the most suave Hanukkah song ever.
Meshugga Beach Party plays traditional Jewish melodies as if they were were surf rock. That singular focus might sound tired, but the band’s version of “Dreidel, Dreidel” was more than a gimmick. It was kind of entertaining.
Jangly rock band Sister Hazel — probably best known for its ’90s single, “All For You” — covered “The Dreidel Song” on its 2007 album, “Santa’s Playlist.” In Sister Hazel’s hands, “The Dreidel Song” sounded was a fun jaunty song. I couldn’t help imagining the band members playing it on a porch. And whiskey.
Erran Baron Cohen is the brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, the man behind the characters Borat and Ali G. Wanting to tell the story of Hanukkah in a new way, Erran Baron Cohen released “Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah” in 2008. Like Craig Snyder set to do with “Dreidel Rap ’89,” Erran Baron Cohen said he wanted to contribute Hanukkah songs that could be more satisfying than the ones with which he grew up. He told NPR:
I remember from my childhood… listening to Hanukkah songs at home and listening to these children singing slightly out of key and some wonky old piano player to make a terrible record. The idea was to create a new concept in Jewish holiday music, something that everybody would enjoy listening to.
The song “Dreidel” reimagined “The Dreidel Song” as a hip-hop song, including a rap interlude. And yet, despite that, it still managed to sound rooted in the history of Jewish music.
The “Broadway’s Carols for a Cure” series has brought Broadway performers together since 1999 to record CDs of holiday songs to raise money for AIDS-related causes. “Broadway’s Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure, Vol. 10, 2008” included a 2003 recording of Marc Shaiman, Trey Parker, Shoshana Bean, Harvey Fierstein, and the Broadway cast of “Hairspray” singing a version of “The Dreidel Song” similar to the version from “South Park.”
Folky indie rock band Campfire OK has been compared to Fleet Foxes and Anathallo. The band’s take on “The Dreidel Song” demonstrates why: What started out as soft and folky evolved into a hand-clappy pop song.
Jewish a cappella group Shir Soul recorded a video of the group’s members singing “The Dreidel Song” while beatboxing. And not only where they beatboxing, but they were spinning dreidels. Good multi-taskers, those members of Shir Soul. The song came out as a single in 2014, and in 2016, it appeared on the album, “Holiday Shir.”
“Good Mythical Morning with Rhett & Link” is a YouTube talk show in which the hosts — that would be Rhett and Link — interview guests and perform sketches. In 2015, they invited YouTube personality Miranda Sings on to sing Christmas songs. Miranda Sings is actually a character played by Colleen Ballinger, who uses the character to satirize YouTube singers who are painfully unaware that they are… not as talented as they think they are. In a bonus video for that episode, Miranda Sings, Rhett, and Link sang their own version of “The Dreidel Song.” It was entertaining, even if it was… not good.
Broadway Sessions is a musical theatre variety show in which host Ben Cameron invites Broadway stars to perform. Actress Adinah Alexander has performed “The Dreidel Song” as a Broadway Sessions guest at least twice: once, in 2013…
…and another time in 2016.
In both versions, Alexander went from soft to Sam Kinison in about a minute.
Pop punk band Patent Pending blended a portion of “The Dreidel” song into “Jingle Bells/Mazel Tov”, which appeared on the band’s 2016 release, “Season’s Greetings.”
There’s an argument to be made that these versions are not covers in the traditional sense, because the people recording the song probably never heard the original version of the song. Anymore “The Dreidel Song” is a folk song that’s associated with the holiday rather than any artist. In that regard, it’s unlike most of the songs featured on Cover Songs Uncovered, because most of those songs can be associated with an artist. But before reading this post, how many versions of “The Dreidel Song” could you name? You might have known the song, but you probably couldn’t quickly name a recorded version that you heard.
Many of the artists covering the song seem to fall into one of two categories: Jewish artists putting a quirky spin on something they’ve heard since childhood, or artists who wanted to make their holiday-themed project more inclusive so as to not leave out Jewish listeners. But of all the covers of “The Dreidel Song,” perhaps the most poignant is the version on the 2015 album, “Dreidel I Shall Play.”
Featuring new recordings of Samuel and Israel Goldfarb’s holiday and liturgical songs from the 1910s and 1920s, the album was arranged by Craig Taubman. But driving the project was Samuel Goldfarb’s aforementioned son, Myron Gordon.
Gordon was just a child when his father left New York. His relationship with his father was not strained so much as it was nonexistent. He changed his surname from Goldfarb to Gordon to distance himself from his father, but kept some of father’s personal things. After Gordon rediscovered his father’s memorabilia from the 1920s, he decided to record an album of his father’s music as a way of forging a connection with him.
In previous posts, I’ve written about how cover songs can reinterpret a song so that we can see it in a new light. But for Gordon, he seemed to have little interest in changing the way we see Goldfarb’s music. The bigger goal, it seemed, was for him to reinterpret Goldfarb.
For Gordon’s part, he seemed happy that in his mid-90s, he found some healing. “Finally, I was not a passive victim of my father’s leaving us or the yearnings it caused,” Gordon told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I went in the other direction, to produce something that would give me a better association with my father. For me, the songs no longer represent defeat. They represent at last what they were intended to.”