JUST ONE ANGEL
JANIS IAN #22 "Joy"
Janis Ian "Joy"
Janis Ian has nine Grammy nominations, more than 20 major label releases, and numerous platinum and gold records throughout the Western world. She likes being a writer.
Who are the great songwriters in America today?
Not the most popular. Not the richest. Simply the greats.
Ask any student of the form, and Janis Ian will be counted among them. The writer of “Jesse,” a song recorded by so many others that few remember Ian wrote it; “Stars,” possibly the best song ever written about the life of a performer, recorded by artists as diverse as Mel Torme and Cher; and the seminal “At Seventeen,” a song that brought her five Grammy nominations
(the most any solo female artist had ever garnered) in 1975,
and which is now reaching its third generation of listeners.
Ian is a formidable talent, a force of nature. Ella Fitzgerald called her “The best young singer in America.” Chet Atkins said “Singer? You ought to hear that girl play guitar; she gives me a run for my money!” Reviewers have called her live performances “overwhelming to the spirit and soul,” and “drenched with such passion, the audience feels they’ve been swept up in a hurricane.” Not to mention her short stories, her songs for film and television . . . and oh, yes. She also runs a foundation, named for her mother, that works with various universities and colleges to supply scholarships for returning students; they’ve raised over $300,000 to date.
For the record, Ian was born April 7, 1951, and started playing the piano at two. Far from being a child prodigy on that instrument, she hated scales and studying, and switched to guitar at age ten. (“I figured out that while you couldn’t carry a piano, you could carry a guitar, and that was it.”) Her first song was written at twelve and recorded on her first album for Verve-Folkways in 1965, which also featured her first hit, Society’s Child. The song ignited controversy from coast to coast, resulting in the burning of a radio station, the firing of disc jockeys who played it, and a generation hungering for the truth finally having a female songwriter to stand beside Bob Dylan.
“It was good to start young,” says Ian. “It was good to learn, early on, that what matters is the music. I got most of my big mistakes over with before I was twenty-one. When people say ‘Didn’t you miss having a teenage life?’ I just say ‘I only know the life I lived. I was a teenager, working. A hundred years ago, no one would have thought anything of it. At least I got to do something I loved! I could have been working in a factory, or a day job where every day is the same thing, day in and day out. Instead, I got to deal with everything from doing coke with Jimi Hendrix to death threats. I lived an entire life in my teen years, and I don’t regret a second of it.”
The Best Part of Christmas
For me, the best part of Christmas was being Jewish. No offense to the non-Jews out there, but from the time I was a child, Christmas was my favorite time of year. And I never once wanted to be anything but Jewish during it!
We may not have celebrated Christmas, but we had something even better – we had Chanukah. And Chanukah had a lot of "oomph" to it!
We Jews, in our homeland, were occupied by a ferocious group of Romans. The Romans pretty much believed in “live and let live”, so long as you added their gods and emperors to your own. This didn’t sit well with us, so when a group of Roman soldiers tried to make an elder named Mattathias bow down to a statue of the Roman emperor, he refused. No way he was going to worship a false idols – and who could argue with his decision? Some ugly bald guy in granite is supposed to inspire awe?
Anyhow, he was village headman, and he refused, so the Romans threatened to kill him. And instead of knuckling under, Mattathias grabbed a sword from one of the soldiers and cut off his head. Whop!!
What a story! It’s just the beginning, and already heads are rolling!
Mattathias and his five sons fled to the hills, where they managed to hold off the entire Roman army for years. Years. Imagine that. A small band of Jews, holding off thousands of well-trained militia through the early use of guerilla warfare and brilliant strategizing. Who wouldn’t be proud of their ancestry, after learning that?
Plus, the drama - so fast-moving, it’s practically manga. Just imagine a small child hearing the story every year. Clashing swords! Righteous battles! Jewish soldiers slaying Roman infidels, lopping off heads right and left! Pagan altars toppling to the ground while weeping women are freed, and children my own age gird their loins for battle! What spectacle! What fun!!
Now, compare that with the birth of a kid in a run-down barn…. I know, I know. He was a really important kid. But no matter whose son he may be, you're going to have to wait at least a couple of years before he can talk coherently, let alone wield a sword.
Then, three wise men from afar arrive on donkeys.
Donkeys. I ask you. Donkeys. The Romans had horses. Huge, thundering, hoof-shattering horses. How could donkeys compare?
It's a no-contest.
So there you have my first reason. But wait. There’s more.
Second, we Jews had magic. When the Temple was destroyed, our nation was almost lost. But one of Mattathias’ sons, Judah, took charge. He waded into the Roman forces wielding an enormous hammer, and led us to victory after victory.
They called him Judah Maccabee, because Maccabee means “hammer”. Who could imagine such a fantastic nickname! – “The Hammer”! How could the picture of Santa Claus and his reindeer possibly beat out a battle-hardened Jew, crazily swinging Thor’s hammer over his head as he mote and smote and crashed and bashed until he cleared a path for us? Just imagine Santa Claus and his elves accomplishing that!
Eventually, the whole guerilla force was called The Maccabee’s, and they slowly fought their way back to the Temple, intending to re-build it. This was no small thing. Against all odds, our main house of worship had stood for over four hundred years, until those good-for-nothing Romans arrived. It symbolized all things Jewish – everything that separated my people from the idol-worshipping hordes that surrounded us, bent on our destruction at any price. It was more than a building. It was sacred ground.
Listening to the story as a child, I could imagine Judah and his brothers finally arriving at the site. They’d be panting from the lack of water, breathing in shallow gulps so as not to waste a drop. Their eyes would be dry, stinging from the desert heat. Not enough water in them for tears, I’d think. No water for tears.
I could barely imagine the devastation. No matter how bad you think something is, it’s worse when you actually confront it. They knew the Temple had been destroyed. They knew it had been sacked. But what did that mean, when in their memories the building still stood?
Now, facing bodies flung helter-skelter over the fallen walls, how would they feel? Gazing upon shards of fire-blackened wood, picking their way through the rubble, spying an altar-stone leaning crazily against a melted menorah, how they must have suffered! How their hearts must have broken! After years and years of battle, how would they keep from dropping with despair?
They searched and searched for any living thing, but found only dust. The scrolls and ornaments were destroyed. Everything they used for worship had been looted or burned. It must have felt like the end of the world, all that fighting for nothing. Until, amidst the wreckage, someone stumbled upon a a tiny amphora of oil, just enough to burn for one day.
A miracle! For a piece of glass to have survived the soldier’s carnage was miraculous, all would surely agree.
Yes, miraculous. But not enough. In order to re-dedicate the Temple, the flame needed to burn constantly. An eternal flame, for an eternal people. And this was one tiny amphora, just enough for a day.
Consternation! Weeping and wailing! They sent their fastest runners to find more oil, knowing the trip would take a full week. Then they lit the amphora, said their prayers, and hoped for the best.
Lo and behold, another miracle. When the runners returned, cradling urns of oil like babies in their arms, they were astonished. The tiny amphora had burned for seven whole days, exactly the length of their trip. Truly a miracle. Miracle enough to keep the Maccabees going. Miracle enough to keep the faith alive.
So score another one for the Jews. We had miracles. Oh, I knew the birth of Christ was a miracle, too. But He didn't have "The Hammer." Or the oil. Or the runners.
I now had two really good reasons to stick with my religion, but the most important was yet come. The third and final reason was time.
My people didn’t have to spend Christmas morning rushing through breakfast to get to our presents, rushing through our presents to get dressed, rushing through getting dressed to go to church, rushing through church to go visit family we didn’t want to see, and rushing through that to get home so we could play with our presents. We didn’t have to cram everything into a single day. In fact, there was no rushing at all.
That’s because during the holiday season, we Jews had time. Nights and nights of time. Eight nights, to be exact, because that’s how long Chanukah lasts. Whether you’re here in the U.S. of A., or deep in the bowels of China, Chanukah lasts eight nights.
Count them. Eight. Nights.
And what does all this mean to a couple of first-generation parents, living with their children in a completely goyische neighborhood? Parents determined that their children will remain Jewish, even in this new land?
We are surrounded. The TV is filled with sparkly white Christians, smiling loopily as they call out season’s greetings. Floorboards everywhere groan under the weight of over-decorated Christmas trees, branches drooping with holiday ornaments. The town has put up a Christmas display. There’s a Christmas pageant at the school. It’s a Wonderful Life is playing four times a day, right next to A Christmas Carol. There’s no getting away from it..
‘Tis theseason, with a vengeance. All day long, we hear Christmas songs, Christmas bells, Christmas greetings. But most of all, we keep hearing about presents. Come Christmas morning, there will be presents. Bicycles. Lionel trains. Erector sets. Fire trucks. Lincoln Logs. Every Christian kid could expect one big present that Christmas morning, in honor of His birth.
This was completely alien to us. Back in the shtetl, no one exchanged presents. No one thought to celebrate Judah Maccabee’s birth. Who had time for that? We were too busy trying to stay alive, to make it through one more pogrom, one more Stalin, cursed be his name. We didn’t give gifts. We had a ceremony. We lit candles, said prayers, thanked God for another year of life.
Sure, it’s a beautiful ceremony, but it’s not presents.
Faced with the prospect of their children missing out on such an important event, what’s a Jewish parent to do? We lit the candles, of course. We said the prayers. Tradition is the bedrock of our nation. But this is the New World, and new worlds demand new traditions.
Which is where the eight nights becomes so important.
No matter whether Chanukah came before, or after, Christmas each year… no matter whether Johnny got a bike, or Susie got a doll… no matter how fabulous their Christmas morning was, Chanukah was better. Because we had eight nights. With a present for each and every night. We never felt it necessary to mention that most of those presents were small things – a pencil box. A pair of argyle socks. The dreaded winter muffler. That wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was the eight nights.
So when my schoolmates bragged about their gifts, and told me how sorry they were that we Jews didn’t get to have Christmas, I just smirked, winked at them, and said:
“Who needs Christmas? It only lasts a day. But Chanukah lasts a whole week.”
I’d watch their faces fall, and for just a moment, surrounded by a sea of Christianity, I was Judah wielding his hammer, winning the yearly battle for holiday one-up-manship at East Orange Elementary School.
Victory at last.
Like I said. The best part of Christmas is being Jewish.