Ellen Kushner and Shirim Klezmer Orchestra: The Golden Dreydl

Judith Gennett wrote this review.

“It was the busted TV. It was as big as she was, no, bigger! It was growing to the ceiling!”

The Golden Dreydl is subtitled “A Klezmer Nutcracker for Chanukah.” It combines a children’s story by writer and radio host Ellen Kushner with a klezmer adaptation of tunes from the Nutcracker, originally released by the Shirim Orkestar in 1998 as The Klezmer Nutcracker. Kushner has behind her several fantasy novels, including Swordspoint, Thomas the Rhymer and The Fall Of the Kings. Resumès of the Shirim include the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, Hypnotic Clambake and Les Miserables Brass Band. The story and music were perfomed en duo on “Sound And Spirit” on WGBH Boston/PBS, which Kushner also hosts, and have also been performed on stage. “It’s like Tschaikovsky meets Harry Potter and they go to a Jewish wedding.” says Kushner. Maybe.

The plot to the story is as follows. One Chanukah night, a tradition-weary child named Sarah receives a magic golden dreydl (a clever cross between a top and a die) from her Aunt Miriam. While fighting with her brother, the dreydl is catapulted disastrously into the TV screen. Crack! Later, Sarah finds the dreydl laying on the floor in the form of a girl, and they then leap through the injured screen into the golden dreydl’s world, sort of like an Oz or Wonderland. (A TV screen? How symbolic!)

Once in this alternative universe, the little dreydl girl is immediately picked up and absconded with by a group of spiritually backward facing dragon demons. These demons, the Bast Party of TV-land, represent Ultimate Evil. The rest of the story tells how Sarah ultimately saves the little dreydl by using wit and courage. First she meets a peacock, then a joker, and it is these jokes that release the whirling toy and many like her in a penultimate Tumbalalaikaesque contest.

I set the disc to play in my car on a spring evening drive back from Portland. The production was excellent and Kushner’s reading was perfect, a mix of wonder and wit. But soon after the dragons swooped down, the action slowed and my mind began to drift to the words written on the doors of passing semis. Could we limit this to 15 minutes? I asked. Could we limit this to klezmer music? It was just not my alternate universe. None of my favorite literary themes were here…no continental drift and subsequent thrust faulting, no searing pornographic sex, no Winter Wars or magic salmon. In addition, there were no stunningly poetic descriptions of the Ozic scenery. Hence I passed this on to more expert ears.

My opportunity came when my family drove up to the Rockford Grange to contra dance. Two children, 9 and 13, were trapped in the back seat. My 9 year-old daughter listened attentively, whereas my son moonlighted with a copy of “Honor of the Mountain Man.” “What’s that music?” asked my son. “It’s familiar.” “That’s the “March of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” said my daughter. On the way back, fortunately no one could see to read. We listened to the second half, which proved to be very gripping and popular with the three other occupants of the car. My son guffawed at the riddle contest. “Flying lox box, ha ha ha!!!!” And even I noticed that Kushner does describe the selfish peacock quite vividly.

But for me, the high point of the album was the Shirim Orchestra. Though they served to frame the stage for the story, they surely did not play second clarinet to Kushner..at least to my ears! Only a few passages are recognizable as Tschaikovsky, but, as the players point out, Russian and Jewish music are quite similar, so who knows? Whatever they are actually playing, the band is armed with trombone, tuba, clarinet, piano, and, um…banjo. The banjo gives a good touch, something like a washboard balalaika.. The heavy brass, including the tuba, can sometimes make a very forceful, whoompy statement about the surrounding action. At others, the birdlike clarinet perkily flutters like a little bird, or struts like a peacock. I liked the way everyone got into the car to Aunt Leah’s at the beginning of the album. Imagine an entire klezmer band stuffed into a minivan and playing klez until the car stops!

My guess is that this will be a fun album for kids, for those interested in Jewish heritage, and for adults who like fairy stories. ‘The Golden Dreydl could easily evolve into a holiday tradition. And I look forward to listening to more albums from the Shirim boys!

(Rykodisc, 2000)

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