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Holiday sounds rediscovered

More than a concert, The Chanukkah Story combines a history lesson with a cultural celebration.

By MARTY CLEAR
Published December 10, 2003

It seems like every holiday song this time of year is about the baby Jesus, Santa, reindeer or snow. Maybe occasionally someone plays that Adam Sandler song about Hanukkah.

But the Jewish Festival of Lights has inspired stirring music that spans centuries and crosses cultural boundaries.

The music isn't well known, even to musicians interested in traditional Jewish music. So when the members of the Western Wind, a New York a cappella ensemble, wanted to put together a celebration of the Jewish holiday, they had to do some research.

"It started when some of the Jewish members of the group, myself included, remarked that there wasn't much Jewish music being played on the radio," said William Zukof, a founding member of the Western Wind. "We delved into the songbooks and we found a lot of wonderful songs, some of them set to contemporary Hebrew poetry."

Those songs formed the basis of The Chanukkah Story, which has become a staple of the group's repertoire since the show premiered in 1990. The Western Wind, along with a group of musicians and narrator Avi Hoffman, will perform the piece this evening at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Because Hanukkah isn't among the most important Jewish holidays (it's more widely celebrated in the United States than in most other countries), most of the music was obscure, Zukof said. So even the members of the Western Wind were surprised at the wealth of appropriate musical material. They discovered songs in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and even Ladino, the language of the Spanish Jews.

"The music is lovely and delightful," Zukof said. "It's both fun and moving at the same time. And though it's not for very young children, I'd recommend it for anyone from say age 8 and up."

The show is much more than just a concert. It explains and examines the eight-day celebration marking the rededication of the Temple of the Maccabees after the victory over the Syrians more than 2,000 years ago, and the miracle of the day's worth of oil lighting the Temple for eight days.

The show "takes contemporary and classical stories, from Greek times to the Holocaust, and explores the miracle of Hanukkah and the way it relates to our lives today," Hoffman said.

Hoffman is a noted actor and playwright, probably best known for a guest role on Law and Order and for his one-man show, Avi Hoffman's Too Jewish?, which has aired repeatedly on PBS.

Hoffman was a virtually last-minute replacement for Tovah Feldshuh. Her commitment to her Broadway show, Golda's Balcony, forced her to cancel her role as narrator for the Ruth Eckerd performance.

Both Hoffman and Zukof say The Chanukkah Story isn't just for Jewish audiences.

"The script explores the universality of the theme of the radiance of the divine," Zukof said. "And there are parallels to the Christmas story. It's the story of a small group of rebels who stood up to the most powerful army in the world at the time. So it's about the victory of the weak over the powerful, like the baby who became the god-king."

The Chanukkah Story, 8 p.m. today at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $32-$50. Call 727 791-7400 or go to www.rutheckerdhall.com

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