Shelley started writing songs on Jewish themes when his children were little—mostly fun ditties for family Purim and Chanukah parties. He wrote more serious compositions when close family members started to pass from the scene. Then the songs got lighter again. Some focused on memories of growing up in Toronto in a religious home during the 1950s. Others were more general and present tense, written to tell a comical story or explore a personal experience.
Some of the songs turned out serious enough to bring listeners to tears, others funny enough to accomplish that rare feat, make listeners laugh out loud (Shelley’s always gotten a kick out of a review that called him “a Jewish Tom Lehrer”).
Shelley’s Jewish songs are featured on his albums, Manna, Menorah, and Mazel. The songs are in English, sprinkled liberally with Hebrew and Yiddish, with the odd Aramaic phrase thrown in. Each album includes a booklet with the lyrics; there is an extensive glossary at this website for listeners whose Aramaic might not be up to snuff.
Manna, Menorah, and Mazel are not children’s albums, though children find many of the songs fun to listen to and sing. There are numerous musical styles represented: klezmer (featuring the wonderful band, Beyond the Pale), musical theatre, bluegrass and old timey, doo wop, Dixieland jazz, English trad, electric blues, Gilbert & Sullivan.
Shelley’s Jewish songs are low on dialect shtick and void of stereotype. His songs about his mom are about a mother who is Jewish, not a Jewish Mother. And while many of the songs are about food, they obsess in unexpected ways: a blues about tcholent (recipe in the song!); a tribute to homentashn by way of the English Music Hall; a Hot Club-style account of a Chasid in a Chinese restaurant; a G&S-type patter song praising deli tongue. Sing about what you know and love, says Shelley, and he does–every way he can.
Shelley sums up the three Jewish albums this way: Manna is largely about food and festivals, and as it says on the cover, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll run to the fridge.” Menorah, with its focus on Jewish continuity and family tradition, is more “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll buy this for your kids.” Mazel looks at the past and present, and at many of the ways there have been—and some of the ways there are—to be Jewish.
Together, the CDs are a smart, witty, poignant, one-of-a-kind musical take on contemporary Jewish experience.
You can sample Shelley’s Jewish songs here.