In advance of her show on the third night of Hanukkah at Tikva Records, Rebecca Bortman spoke with us regarding details of the performance. She also explained that the pop band with which she has long been associated, San Francisco’s My First Earthquake, is a band no more. Still, fans of the group will be happy to know that Earthquake guitarist Dave Lean, who also figured prominently in its Hanukkah video, will be playing with her. Bortman talked about growing up in a KKK-heavy region of the country, about doing battle with the pervasiveness of Christmas music, about being courted in YouTube comments, and about covering a cover version.
Tikva Records: Please recount the story of your popular Hanukkah song, “Fa La Freezing.”
Rebecca Bortman: It came out three years ago and it was our band’s first video and got the most attention. I guess maybe that’s sad we didn’t get much after the first one. We’ve gotten attention, but not as much — it has over 300,000 views on YouTube. It’s based on a song I had to sing in fifth grade choir. It’s about hot chocolate. In fifth-grade choir we sang this song with funny hand motions about wanting a hot cup of cocoa, and one of my roommates in San Francisco — I have four roommates — who is much more of a religious Jew than me, heard the song. I could never remember how it ended, so he decided to end it “with a marshmallow or two, even though I am a Jew.” I would just sing that all the time. And the band thought it was kind of funny. They wanted to record it. That’s the strange start of that song.
Tikva: This Tikva Records project is about, among other things, assimilation, and assimilation cuts both ways: American Jews becoming more homogenous, but also looking back into one’s heritage. Was that Hanukkah song an anomaly or the tip of an iceberg?
Bortman: Definitely the tip of an iceberg. Trying not to get too heavy: I grew up in a county in southwestern Pennsylvania that had the highest KKK membership of any county in the United States.
Tikva: Good job there, not getting too heavy.
Bortman: Sure thing, any time. So, even though I was growing up close to Squirrel Hill, which is one of the biggest Jewish communities, I personally experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, being one of only two Jews. So, I have always been a little more secretive than the average Jewish person about my Judaism. When the song came out it was, like, “OK, Bortman, you’re outed,” for better or worse. You can scroll back through the comments on the YouTube video and see everything from neo-Nazis to gentlemen proposing marriage.
Tikva: How did that work out?
Bortman: I was not harmed by any neo-Nazis or nice Jewish gentlemen. We did a follow-up song that. There’s another element of the first song: in the second verse I talk about how my birthday is two days before Christmas, which may contribute to my curmudgeonly attitude toward the holidays in general. I really hate Christmas music, and its pervasiveness. So we wrote another holiday song in an effort to not have just Christmas-centric music. It’s more “everybody get along for the holidays.” Equal opportunity holiday enjoyment.
Tikva: Who will be playing with you?
Bortman: It’s my bandmate, Dave Lean, on guitar. He’s in the Hanukkah video with me. Our band kind of broke up this fall.
Tikva: I’m sorry to hear that.
Bortman: But it was instigated by me, so I am probably the least one deserving of an “I’m sorry.” So, Dave is the guitarist from that band, and we’re going to be playing four songs we wrote together and two covers. It will be our vocals, his guitar, and our friend, Dana Goldberg, who is singing and playing the xylophone with us.
Tikva: Can you name the two covers you’ll be playing at the Tikva event?
Bortman: Sure, sure. We are doing a cover of the Maccabeats. I believe the song is called “Candlelight.” And then “Personal Jesus.”
Tikva: Johnny Cash’s version of the original Depeche Mode song is grewat.
Bortman: It’s definitely a cover of Johnny Cash’s cover.
Tikva: Was that a song you were a fan of before hearing the Cash’s version?
Bortman: I guess the easy twist that perhaps we are doing is by changing it to be more about Jewish metaphors. In my public school, we learned about Christ figures. And I think a case can be made that song is more about S&M than about finding Jesus. That’s why it’s interesting. It’s also a beautiful, simple song. I can’t take any credit for thinking of it. Dave, our guitarist, he’s an expert noodles, and he started noodling it.
Get free tickets to Bortman’s December 22 show here. Check out the full list of Tikva Records Hanukkah 2011 events.