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A Song for Each Night!

Thanks to Adam Sandler, the Maccabeats, Peter Yarrow, and others, we are blessed with a plethora of Hanukkah songs. Whether silly, sentimental, or some other style, many are based on non-liturgical sources, no doubt because liturgical texts focused on celebrating Hanukkah are few and far between.

So where do all of our beloved Hanukkah songs come from? Some come from Yiddish or Sephardic folk traditions, while some are based on medieval poetry. Others were inspired by the special foods and symbols of the Festival of Lights. In the spirit of this season, we offer insights into eight of the most beloved Hanukkah melodies—a song for each night!

"Maoz Tzur"  ("Rock of Ages")

"Maoz Tzur" is the quintessential Hanukkah melody. Based on a Jewish liturgical poetic form known as a piyyut, it was written in the 13th century and contains six stanzas. We generally only sing the first and last ones during Hanukkah because these contain texts that relate directly to the holiday. The others address additional challenges Jews have faced throughout the years.

Although the composer of the piyyut is unknown, the stanzas' first letters form an acrostic that spells "Mordecai," leading many to believe this was the author's first name. The English translation we typically sing is based on the German version by Leopold Stein (1810-1882), and was written byTalmudic linguists Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil. Like many piyyutim, there are multiple melodies that have become popular. This version by Benedetto Marcello was composed in Venice in 1724—long before the lyricist of the English version we know today was even born!

"Mi Yimaleil" ("Who Can Retell")

"Mi Yimaleil" was written by Menashe Rabinowitz (1899-1968), who also was known by the Hebrew last name Ravina, and was among the earliest creators of Israeli folk music. In this song, Ravina fuses sacred and secular texts, demonstrating an interesting relationship between Jewish folk and liturgical music. Although the song was not designed for a specific religious purpose, its words are drawn from Biblical psalms. Singer-songwriter Shira Kline arranged "Mi Yimaleil" in tandem with the most popular melody for "Maoz Tzur," creating a medley of beloved Hanukkah folk music that she incorporates in her ShirLaLa Hanukkah album.

"I Have a Little Dreidel"

It is impossible to know who wrote this silly Hanukkah classic because the English and Yiddish melodies are exactly the same. However, the English song is about a dreidel, and in the Yiddish song, the singer is a dreidel. In the Yiddish version, the dreidel is made from "blay" (lead), which, historically, is accurate, and in the English version it is made from clay. The song has spawned countless parodies about dreidels made from wood, plastic, and foam. The song even has been recorded by the popular rock group, Barenaked Ladies.

"Ocho Kandelikas" ("Eight Candles")

This Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Hanukkah song was written by Flory Jagoda, a Sephardic folk singer who devoted her life to reviving the music and language of her childhood. Although the song has a folk-like, through-the-ages quality, it wasn't written until 1983. Reflecting Jagoda's musical training, which began in the small village of Vlacenica, in Bosnia, where she grew up singing with her extended family, the lyrics describe a child's joy in lighting the Hanukkah candles, and provide a delightful lesson in conversational Ladino as we repeatedly count the holiday's eight candles.

"I Am a Latke"

This clever song by Debbie Friedman, z"l, tells the story of Hanukkah from the perspective of the potato latke, one of the holiday's most beloved delicacies. But the song isn't all silliness; it includes a basic recipe for latkes, and also teaches about Jewish foods for other holidays. ("Matzah and charoset are for Pesach…blintzes on Shavuot are delicious.") Included, too, is a stanza about social justice and the importance of helping people who are less fortunate, especially amidst our own celebrations.

"Y'mei HaHanukkah" ("O Hanukkah")

This Hanukkah classic has Hebrew, English, and Yiddish versions. The Yiddish version, "Oi Chanuke," includes lyrics by Lithuanian Mordkhe Rivesman (1868-1924). The English and Hebrew versions are poetic translations of the Yiddish by E. Guthmann and Avraham Avronin, respectively. The song's Chasidic melody references many Hanukkah traditions and celebrates the happiness and joy of the holiday.

If the melody sounds familiar to classical music lovers, it may be because the Society for Jewish Folk Music, in St. Petersburg Russia, published two classical compositions which make extensive use of "Freylekhs" for solo piano, by Hirsch Kopyt (published in 1912) and "Dance Improvisation" for violin and piano, by Joseph Achron (published in 1914 in Kharkov).

"Haneirot Halalu" ("We Light These Lights")

"Haneirot Halalu," a chant mentioned in the Talmud (Soferim 20:6), reminds us that the Hanukkah lights are sacred and are lit to commemorate and publicize the miracles experienced by our people in the past. The text—often recited after lighting the newest candle each night—reiterates that the lights are symbolic and decorative, and are not to be used except to show gratitude for the miracles and wonders of the season. Although the text simply can be chanted, there are several choral arrangements that incorporate the Talmudic passage. Jewish composer Stacy Beyer has created a contemporary version that includes both Hebrew and English.

"Light One Candle"

The lyrics of this folk-rock song by Peter, Paul, and Mary connect two Hanukkah themes—the hanukkiyah and freedom—in a moving way to remind us that lack of freedoms still exists today. In addition to observing Hanukkah at home, we also must act to encourage freedom in the world. In a 1983 interview in the Christian Science Monitor, Mary Travers recalled the song's premiere in Israel, which coincided with the Lebanon War: "We didn't want to be against anything specific like Lebanon or the occupation, but for something—the moral ethic, which is the essence of Israel."

Wishing you a Hanukkah that is filled with much light, love, and music.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November-December 2014 Newsletter of Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee, WI.

Cantor Lauren Phillips serves Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee, WI. She was ordained from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College and is a member of the American Conference of Cantors. Her love of Jewish music and her affinity for Hanukkah songs began during a third-grade Hanukkah play at Temple Israel of Great Neck in Great Neck, NY.