Rock Out With Your Latke Out

When I was growing up, Chanukah seemed like a wan, meaningless holiday, albeit a personally lucrative one. My celebratory memories mostly involve the receipt of Atari 2600 cartridges. Some vestiges of old-neighborhood tradition lingered: Homemade latkes, a bag of gelt, … Read More

By / December 15, 2006
When I was growing up, Chanukah seemed like a wan, meaningless holiday, albeit a personally lucrative one. My celebratory memories mostly involve the receipt of Atari 2600 cartridges. Some vestiges of old-neighborhood tradition lingered: Homemade latkes, a bag of gelt, and especially my dad’s off-key, droning rendition of Maoz Tzur, which he delivered nightly in a dark kitchen lit only by the menorah on our butcher-block island. But it looks as though Elijah’s going to experience slightly different Chanukah cultural norms.

Last weekend, Elijah’s preschool held its annual Festival Of Lights Chanukah fundraiser. As mandated by an East-of-Hollywood address, quite a few of us have rock credentials. Some of us are even Jewish, or at least married to Jews. There’s a quality “Shabbat band” that plays every Friday morning, comprised of school parents who are working musicians. Their children are going to grow up equally comfortable on the bima and in the mosh pit; these people, I’ve come to realize, know how to throw a party.

Like everything else in this part of town, the Festival Of Lights was grassroots by necessity and slightly downscale by choice. I arrived on Saturday at 9:30 AM to begin my volunteer shift. The parking lot was full of busy parents setting up booths: A dreidel table, a fishing game, a duck pond, a bouncy house, spin art, votive candle making, crown and scepter decorating, hair-spraying, face painting, tattoos, airbrush T-shirts, a used-book sale (where I volunteered), and several holiday boutique tables. There was also a photo booth that featured a wintery background, a machine blowing bubbles that were supposed to look like snow, and a four-foot tall plaster bunny that felt just to the right, aesthetics-wise, of the bunny in Donnie Darko. It looked like a holiday photo exhibit that I might have seen ten years ago in Chicago, at Lounge Ax. Lots of families got their pictures taken.

Around 11 AM, things started to swing. A band called Camp Susannah took the stage. This featured a mom from the school who sang songs written by her mother, the composer of Free To Be You And Me. She also sang Yellow Submarine, a song that’s now required at all gatherings designed for children under age 7, and a pretty catchy tune about going to Mars. Later, my wife came up to me.

“That Mars song from The Backyardigans sounded pretty good when she did it,” Regina said.

“Holy shit,” I said. “That was from The Backyardigans?”

“I know. I barely recognized it.”

“I hate The Backyardigans.”

Really, though, I hated myself for recognizing a song from The Backyardigans, and hated myself even more for being an anti-Backyardigans, especially because Elijah loves the show and doesn’t understand that it’s cloying and terrible. If nothing else, parenting presents lots of fresh opportunities for self-hatred. Anyway, I was saved from having to think too much about this by a plate of latkes and a Hansen’s Natural Soda, which Regina had brought for me.

“Are you having fun?” I asked.

“Elijah was good at the fishing,” Regina said.

“And I was also good at the bouncy house,” said Elijah.

“You’re always good at the bouncy house,” I said.

At that moment, Rocket took the stage. This is a band on an L.A. indie label called Teenacide Records. One of the members is the younger sister of one of the moms from Elijah’s class. Apparently, Elijah is into bands that feature hot young indie-rock chicks playing Iggy and The Stooges covers, because as soon as the band started, he began bopping up and down in his seat.

“Mommy,” he said. “I want to go hear the rock-n-roll.”

“I could take him and you could work the beanbag toss,” I said to my wife.

“Nah,” she said. “This band is good.”

And they were, too. Elijah immediately ran up on stage because, following the long tradition of kids at rock shows, that’s where all his friends were. He parked himself in front of a monitor, and then he froze. By the time Regina realized what was going on, the band was three songs into their set.

Fifteen minutes later, they came back to the beanbag toss booth where I was now volunteering.

“Your son is deaf,” Regina said.

“No he’s not,” I said.

“Try him.”

“Elijah,” I said, shouting for effect, “CAN YOU HEAR ME?????”

“YES!!!!!” he said.

“See,” I said to Regina. “He’s not deaf.”

“He said his ears are ringing,” she said.

“This too shall pass,” I said.

“All these parents have been to so many rock shows that they don’t realize how loud the music is,” she said.

“It’s our generation’s curse,” I said.

“The music hurt my ears,” said Elijah.

“See?” said Regina.

“But I liked it,” he added.

“See?” I said.

The next band was The Lashes, Columbia Records artists from Seattle who happened to be playing a show at the El Rey that night. They’re friends with the girls in Rocket, and therefore friends of the school. As evidenced by the large number of black-clad college-age kids who showed up when their set started, The Lashes had obviously advertised their preschool parking-lot gig on MySpace. Still, they adjusted their set accordingly. During a final-song guitar solo, the lead singer left the stage to go jump around in the bouncy house. The parents seemed to appreciate this gesture. After all, no Columbia Records touring artists had played Chanukah fairs when we were kids.

In fact, the only time I heard Mao Tzur all day was between band sets, as Joey, one of the fair’s main organizers and the school’s most involved and spirited dad, bassoed a few off-key lines while performing his emceeing duties. The similarities to my childhood ended there; Joey was wearing biker shorts and a tuxedo shirt and spent the rest of the festival giving rickshaw rides to three kids at a time.

If this festival is any indication, an admittedly small percentage of American kids will now grow up thinking that Chanukah is, among other things, the Jewish holiday of Iggy Pop covers. But who’s to say a Chanukah fair shouldn’t turn into an indie-rock concert? Personally, I think it’s a style worth developing more widely, because it made a ton of money for the school. Also, it was a damn good time, for kids and parents alike. One dad emailed me later with a simple, and prevailing, sentiment:


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