Adam Sandler, in his impish introduction on Saturday Night Live to the original “Hanukkah Song”, quips, “There’s a lot of Christmas songs out there, but not that many Hanukkah songs. So, I wrote this song for all those nice, little Jewish kids who don’t get to hear that many Hanukkah songs…”
Truth be told, there actually are plenty of Hanukkah songs “out there,” both classic folk melodies and contemporary compositions, yet most of them (with one unfortunate exception, noted below) remain largely unfamiliar to most Americans, and even many Jews. But why? There are multiple reasons.
In most regions of the United States outside of large urban centers, Jews are still a small minority demographic, including the liberal, cosmopolitan city of Austin that I call home. Combine that with the sad tendency of American consumer culture to secularize and coopt anything that can be marketed for a profit, including the Christmas holiday, and the cloying, shopping mall soundtrack of the Black-Friday-Cyber-Monday juggernaut tends to drown out anything that might be out of the cultural mainstream. So yes, even with some comfort taken in that token dreidel or lonely plastic menorah hauled out of storage once a year among the tinsel and wreaths of your neighborhood Target or Walmart, Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song monologue gets at a certain, wistful feeling of cultural invisibility for many Jews at this time of year, and that includes hearing “not that many Hanukkah songs,” at least not in the public sphere.
Here’s one interesting irony: Hanukkah is a lovely and beloved holiday in much of the contemporary Jewish world and is historically significant, too, as it recalls a decisive moment in the survival of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, if one defines the phrase “major Jewish holiday” as a festival mandated in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”), then Hanukkah, which is never mentioned in the Jewish Bible, is not even a major Jewish holiday – indeed, in its origins, it was not even a gift giving holiday. As you’d expect, the prominence of the Christmas season in America and the overlapping timeframe of the two holidays raised the profile of Hanukkah in this country, emphasizing (of course) the gift giving angle and inviting a certain cultural envy, at least in certain quarters, for the glitz, glamour and prominence of Christmas in American life. For all of these reasons, Hanukkah music doesn’t get a lot of air time.
I cannot go any further in this brief exploration of Hanukkah music without citing one exquisite irony: an astonishing number of the most beloved, English-language Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers. From Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to Mel Torme’s great jazz standard, “The Christmas Song”, and encompassing less stellar examples such as Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, many of the top twenty-five most beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews. (For a discussion of this phenomenon, see here.)
So, where are the Hanukkah songs?
Well, anyone who went to Hebrew school in America for the past two or three generations in the United States can sing the song, “I Have a Little Dreidel“ in their sleep. (This is the “unfortunate exception” I referred to earlier.) This ubiquitous ditty begins,
“I have a little dreidel
I made it out of clay
And when it’s dry and ready,
Then dreidel I shall play…”
It turns out that these lyrics were originally written in Yiddish and/or German, in which the titular dreidel was made out of lead, changed only to “clay,” in the English version in order to rhyme with “play.” In any event, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the song (heck, there’s even a cover version by Barenaked Ladies) except that the music gets on your nerves after a while and the lyrics don’t say anything particularly charming or interesting about Hanukkah. However, take my grumpiness about this innocent melody with a grain of kosher salt; I am a congregational Rabbi (and yes, audio nut and music lover) who wrestles with the fear that “I Have a Little Dreidel” is the only thing my Sunday School students will remember about Hanukkah. But my neurosis need not be yours.
In terms of Hanukkah classics, no listing would be complete without the great Yiddish tune, “Oy Hanukkah” (this version by the late Theodore Bikel is particularly sweet, although the English lyrics don’t translate the original Yiddish). Let’s also not forget “Rock of Ages” (“Ma’oz Tzur” in Hebrew). Here’s a lovely, up-tempo version of “Ma’oz Tzur” by contemporary artist Julie Silver.
Speaking of contemporary Jewish music, a search of YouTube or of the CD and download section of Amazon.com will yield both new Hanukkah songs and cover versions of old favorites. For example, check out this link from the website of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) entitled 11 Great, Modern Hanukkah Songs. And in the realm of cover versions, there’s a lot to choose from. Explore, for example, the two CD volumes entitled Festival of Light, which include contributions from artists such as Marc Cohn (of “Walking in Memphis” fame), David Broza and klezmer giants, The Klezmatics.
Speaking of klezmer (that violin- and clarinet-driven, Eastern European jazz mash-up) there’s a great degree of contemporary and classic Hanukkah klezmer music worth checking out. See, for example, this take on Oy Hanukkah by the fabulous Klezmer Conservatory Band:
And, whatever you do, do not miss this excerpt from a swinging, big band arrangement of Oy Hanukkah by the Eyal Vilner Big Band!
Holy moly, that’s tasty!
Finally, lest we leave you with the impression that all Hanukkah songs come out of the Ashkenazi (Eastern and Central European) Jewish world, be sure to enjoy “Ocho Kandelikas”, sung in Ladino (medieval Judeo-Spanish) by its composer, Flory Jagoda:
So there’s your tip-of-the-iceberg Hanukkah music intro. Hag urim same’akh (“Happy Festival of Lights”) to all who are celebrating. And whatever your tradition, may your life and our world be filled with greater goodness, love and light.