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This is not my first holiday season dating a goy—the apple-cheeked daughter of a minister, even. But it is the first winter in our time together that Hanukkah will overlap with Christmas. I fully expect to spend this December 24th and 25th and 26th celebrating Christ's birth amid snow-lined New England streets, candles flickering warmly in windows, tree branches bowing gently under picturesque wintry weight. Or, more likely, hanging out in the kitchen guzzling nog and braiding good cheer with the natural gravitas of the season, while peering out over the frosted lawn.
That's what happens, right? I'm only guessing here. These are new traditions and duties to your humble correspondent, whose heart will surely in some part be with his people. And my people, those nights, will be in Hoboken.
Hanukkah, at least among the secular Jews that I grew up around, was always regarded with a bit of suspicion. My family could manage to get a little worked up for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. For Hanukkah, we'd light a menorah, maybe even make potato pancakes, but there was nothing remotely serious about the occasion. I think it's like that for most Jews, even observant ones. Which is why it's sort of a Christmas miracle that, in my mid-20s, Hanukkah suddenly became extraordinarily meaningful to my un-bar mitzvahed self.
What happened, in part, was that I discovered the band Yo La Tengo. Starting a decade ago this December, and more years than not since then, the Hoboken-based trio has performed benefit shows on the eight nights of Hanukkah at Maxwell's, the bar where they got their start in the early 1980s. Unannounced comedians and musical guests, combined with Yo La Tengo's massive 30-year songbook composed of 17 full-lengths, nearly 1,000 cover tunes, and occasional stupid/brilliant stunts like performing a table reading of a Seinfeld episode, have made being anywhere else on any one of those nights an increasingly unthinkable thought.
"It's a Saturday mitzvah," piped up a younger Yo La Tengo relative from the front row of Maxwell's 200-person-capacity back room one night in 2007, one of two consecutive evenings when former Big Star guitarist Alex Chilton stopped by.
"With or without a menorah," guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan added. The band's electric menorah, balanced as usual on an amp next to drummer Georgia Hubley, had a handwritten "out of order" sign affixed to it.
"What does that mean?" the Tennessee-born Chilton asked.
"She said 'It's a Saturday mitzvah,' which is a good thing," Kaplan explained. "So, with or without a menorah, it's a good thing." He paused. "Just kind of beatnik jive talk."
It earned a laugh, as it should have, but the joy of that interaction—Yo La Tengo and Alex Chilton together at Maxwell's singing Big Star's "Jesus Christ" over the holidays—was kind of beatnik jive talk. Since Kaplan's days as a barely legal on-the-scene columnist for the SoHo Weekly News and later co-booking the influential Music For Dozens series at Folk City, both long before Yo La Tengo's 1984 founding, the band members have existed somewhere near the center of the still-cozy community of first-generation obsessives dumped under the "indie rock" umbrella. Yo La Tengo's fans and friends have long been music journalists and DJs, label magnates and promoters, and, yes, musicians. But mostly they're fans, connected by secret knowledge of the underground, the right records to listen to, the best tiny show one can find on a given night, and probably the best nearby restaurant.
Lately, it is a secret knowledge that has become open to all who know the right things to Google. Even if one missed The Feelies at CBGB in 1977 (I, for one, was still a year away from being born), with just 24 keystrokes—"feelies live mediafire"—some semblance of that experience can now be yours. Not that one needs to know that Kaplan and Hubley met at a Feelies show if Glenn Mercer or Bill Million show up to play (as they did last year), nor that the Maxwell's holiday-show tradition began with The Feelies, nor the two bands' long, tangled histories with each other and their home venue. But it makes it for a richer experience.
Yo La Tengo's live show has long been something worth seeing, an ever-changing array of kaleidoscopic moods and setlists. Nowhere is this more true than at Maxwell's, where Kaplan's extended free-squonk guitar solos are blissfully loud, and the crowd usually gets quiet enough to appreciate the whispering harmonies, quiet Hubley-sung ballads, and unpredictable soulful turns perfected on their quartet of albums from 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One through 2003's Summer Sun.
But then, with its un–New York coatrack, cold-weather-perfect comfort food (chicken potpie!), and no-bullshit setup, there's really no better place in the New York area to see anyone than Maxwell's. If you can't identify the surprise opening act dining with Yo La Tengo a few tables over before the show, you might wander toward the stage to see who has been posted as the evening's guests—bands just as likely to be local friends as top-billed talent like (last year alone) Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, soul legend Syl Johnson, and the reunited Mission of Burma, most of whom joined in for their host's sets as well.