Sam Broverman is the Tom Lehrer of cabaret music. Like Lehrer, he’s a math professor with an insatiable love for parodies. His latest album A Jewish Boy’s Christmas is out just in time for the holidays and streaming at Spotify. The songs first took shape as part of what would become a spoofy annual concert. They’re sardonic, cynical, sometimes schmaltzy, other times absolutely priceless.
True to form, he covers Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica, but adds some lyrics of his own, a litany of holidays too good to give away here. Then he does the first verse again – in what sounds, at least from a former Lower East Sider’s perspective, to be perfectly good Yiddish. If you want a translation of “Every California maid’ll find me playing with my dreydl,” this is where to find it.
What’s a Jew to Do on Christmas is a deadpan, faux-wistful swing ballad about Christmas envy. What if ham could be kosher for a day – and maybe shrimp too? Multi-instrumentalist Drew Jurecka’s clarinet echoes that sentiment over the judicious backdrop of Peter Hill on piano, Ross MacIntyre on bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums.
As one of several shout-outs to Jewish artists who’re responsible for famous Christmas songs, Mel Torme is represented twice. The Christmas Waltz is a duet with Broverman’s cabaret partner, chanteuse Whitney Ross-Barris. The other is The Christmas Song, a.k.a. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – it’s not Nat Cole, but Broverman nevertheless characterizes it as one of the album’s more “serious” songs. Oy.
Ross-Barris’ misty take of the British folk staple Coventry Carol is the best of the serious tunes here, a somber jazz waltz. Then Broverman flips the script with You’re Speaking Yiddish, an irresistibly dixieland-flavored litany of chazzerai, shiksas, kvelling shlemiels and such which have insinuated themselves into everyday English.
The First Noel Parody, featuring the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, casts a suspicious eye on members of the tribe who celebrate Christmas – hey, don’t laugh, in the old country the cossacks would leave you alone if you were ho-ho-hoing with everybody else.
Ross-Barris offers a brassy take of the Tom Waits classic Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis. Christmas Carol Parodies might be the album’s best track, a cautionary medley about holiday selfies, overindulgence and the Halloweenish experience of children’s concerts.
Broverman explains Swinging the Chicken as “a comedic look at the traditional Yom Kippur ritual ‘kapores,’ when a live chicken is passed overhead three times with the hope that it will help atone for one’s sins.” Mazel tov. Ken Whiteley plays slide guitar and Jurecka switches to fiddle in this ersatz western swing tale of poultry in motion. To call this one of the alltime great Christmas albums is akin to saying that Shoko Nagai is one of the world’s greatest Japanese klezmer accordionists. Such things do exist; this is one of them.