Friday, December 11, 2009

“I wake up in the middle of the night and write things that are beautiful” or Does the New York Times hate Orrin Hatch?

The following was published in the New York Times on December 8, 2009. Apparently Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is quite the songster and holds a soft spot in his heart for Jews. I've bold italicized the best parts.

December 9, 2009

A Senator’s Gift to the Jews, Nonreturnable

WASHINGTON — The canon of Hanukkah songs written by Mormon senators from Utah just got a little bigger.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a solemn-faced Republican with a soft spot for Jews and a love of Barbra Streisand, has penned a catchy holiday tune, “Eight Days of Hanukkah.”

The video was posted Tuesday night on Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish lifestyle and culture, just in time for Hanukkah.

Known around the Senate as a prolific writer of Christian hymns and patriotic melodies, Mr. Hatch, 75, said this was his first venture into Jewish music. It will not be his last.

“Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do,” Mr. Hatch said in an interview before heading to the Senate floor to debate an abortion amendment. “Mormons believe the Jewish people are the chosen people, just like the Old Testament says.”

In short, he loves the Jews. And based on an early sampling of listeners, the feeling could be mutual.

“Watching Orrin Hatch in the studio, I said to myself that nothing this great will ever happen to me again,” said Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet.

Set against a bouncy synthesizer beat, the song begins:

“Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah,

The festival of light/

In Jerusalem,

The oil burned bright.”

Adding to the project’s only-in-America mishmash is that the song is performed by Rasheeda Azar, a Syrian-American vocalist from Indiana. But Mr. Hatch is the song’s unquestioned prime mover, or macher. He is featured in the video, sitting stoic in the studio, head bobbing slightly, donning earphones and contributing backup vocals.

The song’s contagious refrain goes:

“Eight days of Hanukkah,

Come let’s celebrate.

Eight days of Hanukkah,

Let’s celebrate tonight, Hey!”

At one point, Mr. Hatch unbuttons his white dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace he wears every day. Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah. Mr. Hatch keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” he said. “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes.”

The genesis of “Eight Days of Hanukkah” came a decade ago. Mr. Hatch was considering a run for the presidency in the campaign eventually won by George W. Bush (Mr. Hatch wound up writing a song for Mr. Bush’s second inaugural, titled “Heal Our Land”). He was discussing his love of songwriting with the writer Jeffrey Goldberg, a well-known mensch-about-town in Washington with a longtime grievance against “the general lameness of Hanukkah music.” (As a columnist for The Jerusalem Post years earlier, Mr. Goldberg had organized a “write-a-new-song-for-Hanukkah contest” that attracted 200 entries, most of them — in his estimation — “dreck.”)

He asked Mr. Hatch if he would write a Hanukkah song. The senator said he would, but never did.

Mr. Goldberg, who now writes for The Atlantic, mentioned the decade-old promise in his blog last year a few days before Christmas. A day later, Mr. Hatch sent him an apologetic e-mail message that included the first five stanzas of “Eight Days of Hanukkah.”

“I am willing to serve as a Semitic song muse for any United States senator,” Mr. Goldberg said. “God forbid any of the Jewish senators write a Hanukkah song.”

Mr. Hatch enlisted his collaborator, Madeline Stone, a Jewish songwriter from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who specializes in Christian music. “I’m a pretty liberal Democrat,” Ms. Stone said. “But it became more about the music and the friendship for me and Orrin.”

The song was recorded in October at a studio in Manhattan.

Mr. Hatch speaks of “Eight Days of Hanukkah” as a gift to the Jewish people. “This song means more to me than most of the songs I have ever written,” he said. “People need to know the story of Hanukkah. It was a miracle.”

He said his ultimate goal would be for his idol, Ms. Streisand, to perform one of his songs. “It would be good for her and good for me,” Mr. Hatch said, while acknowledging that given her outspoken liberalism, that union might require another miracle.

You can watch the video of Hatch in the recording studio (complete with taking his muzuzah necklace out of his shirt!) here.

The frosting on top of the cupcake is that Sen. Hatch's Hanukkah song has been A DECADE in the making. The Times published the following article on August 1, 1999. Again, I've bold italicized the best parts:

Love Is All Around

Orrin Hatch is a distinguished U.S. Senator who is running for the Presidency. But what he really likes to do is sing sweet songs of love.

By Jeffrey Goldberg

The New York Times, August 1, 1999

Midway through a conversation about his quixotic bid to be the Republican Presidential nominee, Orrin Hatch, the grim-faced Mormon patriarch who serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked a question no other United States Senator has ever asked. Or, at the very least, has asked me.

The question: “Have you listened to my love songs?”

I had not, in fact, listened to his love songs. I was familiar with his gospel music—he has a new CD out, “Put Your Arms Around the World,” featuring Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita—and I have listened to his patriotic songs, including “You Gotta Love This Country.” But I had not yet been exposed to his love songs.

Orrin Hatch, the senior Senator from Utah, is not associated in most minds with romance. Orrin Hatch talking about his love music is sort of like the farmer in “American Gothic” jumping off the painting and saying, “You know, what I’d really like to do is go to an all-night rave.”

Hatch asked me this improbable question as we walked through the Hart Senate Office Building. His press aide had warned me against bringing up Hatch’s budding career as a songwriter, on the grounds that he would never stop talking. The Senator loves talking about his music, so much so that he barely noticed the Secretary of State walking by. “Hi, Madeleine,” he finally said. “Keep up the good work.” Albright looked as if she might have something to say, but Hatch’s mind was elsewhere.

“You know, some of my songs are written just for Barbra,” he told me as we continued walking. Barbra, as in Streisand.

Hatch once wrote a song in honor of Ted Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, called “Souls Along the Way.” “Oh, he loved it,” Hatch said, speaking of Kennedy, his sometime legislative partner. “Everybody loves that song. Everybody in the industry thinks it could be a major hit.”

“We are souls along the way—in my heart you stay/You know my secrets, I have cried your pain,” the song goes.

I asked Hatch if he thought the Republican Party would expel him for writing songs for Ted Kennedy and dreaming of working with Barbra Streisand. “I’m not prejudiced. I love Democrats. One of my favorite Democrats is Gladys Knight.” On an album of inspirational music, Knight sings “Many Different Roads,” a song about Mother Teresa and Lady Diana that Hatch wrote the lyrics for: “A princess and a pauper/Walked the lonely roads of life/In many ways so different/And yet so much alike/Many different roads can lead to glory/Many different lamps can bring the light.”

“The music,” Senator Kennedy told me, “is a side of Senator Hatch that not too many people know about.”

Hatch would like that to change, because this is all you need to know about Orrin Hatch: while he would like to be President—name a Senator who wouldn’t—what he would really like to be is Neil Diamond.

Senator Hatch, who is 65, has written poetry for a long time, but he branched out into music only a few years ago, when a Utah composer, Janice Kapp Perry, asked him one day if he would give lyric writing a go. One thing led to another, and soon “he was sending them in batches of 10 and 15,” Perry said. Their first collaboration was “My God Is Love,” a CD of Christian praise.

“This is a way of getting my feelings out without hurting anybody or irritating anybody,” Hatch told me. “Well, some of the songs might irritate people.”

His music is a little bit country and a little bit rock-and-roll. A very little bit: though he professes to be an eclectic listener—I like some of the rap music”—his music fits comfortably into the easy-listening category. Everything rhymes, more or less, and subtexts are nonexistent. I asked him if he would ever write about darker subjects, like his poverty-stricken childhood (the Senator once worked as a janitor), or about controversies in his public career. But Hatch said he had no plans to set the Anita Hill episode to music. His music is straight uplift. “I wake up in the middle of the night and write things that are beautiful,” he said.

Listening to his Christian music gave me an idea. I have been on a 10-year campaign to encourage the writing of better Hanukkah songs. The current Hanukkah catalogue, Adam Sandler’s songs excepted, is insipid and shopworn. Perhaps, I suggested to Senator Hatch, he could write a Hanukkah song to go along with his vast repertory of Christmas music.

“I’m going to show you something I don’t show everybody,” Hatch responded, and pulled out from under his shirt a small mezuza on a chain.

Hatch cottoned to the idea of a Hanukkah song; some of the themes of Hanukkah, the quest for religious freedom most of all, echo the story of the Mormons. He said he would give it a try and invited me to return to his office later that week, to talk about the Hanukkah song and to—and there’s no other way to put this—kick back and listen to his love jams.

So one weekday morning, when the other dozen or so Republican candidates for President were presumably squeezing donors for money—Hatch is roughly $36 million behind George W. Bush, though he has asked that one million Americans contribute $36 each to his campaign—the Senator sat in his office for an hour and listened to CD’s.

“Do you like Sting?” he asked me as he began playing “Whispers of My Heart,” one of the love songs. Yes, I said. “This is Sting,” he responded.

It is?

“Well, no. Actually it’s a kid from Utah. But he sounds like Sting.”

I had prepared, at Hatch’s request, an outline of themes for his Hanukkah song. I would have suggested the title “Light My Fire,” but Orrin Hatch plays things straight, so I thought better of it. He read the outline carefully and said, “I think we can really do something here.” I recommended getting the song out in advance of the New York primary. But he said he doesn’t mix politics and music.

It is not entirely clear why Hatch is running for President. Unlike the other Republican munchkins, he has stature to lose. He has an impressive legislative record and the chairmanship of a powerful committee. He is running, he says, because he is the best alternative to George W. Bush, and because he could do a good job as President.

But then I put this question to him: If he had a choice between the Presidency and superstardom in the world of popular music, which would he choose? “President,” he said. With all due respect, I didn’t really believe him.

Orrin Hatch is my new favorite Senator... Mr. Congeniality.

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