Singer-songwriter-humorist Lauren Mayer reflects on Hanukkah, Christmas, family, growing up a Jew in Orange County and how all this informs her own, artistic process. May you enjoy this in depth interview conducted by… herself.
What inspired you to write “Latkes, Shmatkes”?
Two years ago NPR did a program on Christmas music, and their expert was talking about how secular songs, like “Frosty The Snowman,” became classics, and then he said, “Some songs should never become classics, like this one”— and used an old recording of mine as an example. It was a novelty song I’d written and recorded years ago, “The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey,” and when I wrote in to ask how they found it, they ended up interviewing me. I joked that now I was part of the great tradition of Jewish songwriters who create Christmas music, and I really should do a Chanukah album. Once I said it, I realized it could be a fun idea.
Thanksgiving is over, meaning the few remaining stores with some discretion have put up their decorations (joining the vast majority who started in early November), and the holiday muzak is blaring everywhere – so it’s hard for Jews not to feel overwhelmed and outnumbered. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, so we aren’t really going to compete with giant electric menorahs on our front yards, and it’s highly unlikely that Lifetime will air a new series of “Heartfelt Hanukkah” made-for-TV movies. And it’s particularly hard for parents – our kids are singing carols in school, making ornaments out of popsicle sticks, and hearing about their friends who anticipate scoring major gift hauls. How do we help our kids, and ourselves, feel better about this imbalance?
Yael Kohen’s new book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, has many revealing tales about how change happens. But one stands out for me: in 1966, the actress Marlo Thomas approached the head of ABC-TV programming with a novel idea. She wanted “to play the person with the problem, not the person who assisted the person with the problem.” She recalled:
I didn’t want to be the wife of somebody, or the secretary of somebody, or the daughter of somebody…”Have you ever considered the girl to be the somebody?” And he said, “Would anybody watch a show like that?” I said, “I think they would.” And so I gave him a copy of The Feminine Mystique, and he read it and kind of became convinced.
To paraphrase the legendary Joni Mitchell, I have looked at the Pew Study results from both sides now. I can see how the disconnect with Jewish ritual can be disconcerting and I see how the community’s freedom to identify themselves openly as Jews is incredibly empowering. There’s been a lot of talk about how to interpret the study and where to go from here, but I wonder if we might already have the tools we need to bridge the gaps noted in the study, using some of the traits that the study said best identify the Jewish community.
It turns out that “Jewish Funny” has become evidence-based. Results from the recent Pew Study “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” four in 10 of the 5.3 million religious and cultural Jews surveyed consider a sense of humor essential to Jewish identity. Having a sense of humor is part of our communications and value system. It’s as if we have a framework for which we see the world that lets us find and enjoy the irony of life’s complications. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the words “irony” and “oy” both have an “o” and a “y”.
My political views are shaped by three important facets of my life – I’m Jewish, I’m a woman, and I have kids. For starters, I grew up Jewish in Orange County, CA, where there were even fewer Jews than Democrats.
Sarah Jones is an activist who spreads her message from the stage, portraying characters of many different ethnic backgrounds and in a monologue from each person, discussing issues of ethnicity, diversity, and social justice. Many of these characters are based on people she knew or observed while growing up in Queen’s New York.