Don’t Hate on Hanukkah Songs

By Sarah Breger

It’s true the new Orrin Hatch song may be the best thing to happen to the Jews since Natalie Portman, but I take exception to Jeffrey Goldberg’s assertion that the existing canon of songs are “sparse and uninspiring”. Hanukkah songs rock! It’s one of the only times there are English songs written for a Jewish holiday. Here are a few great Hanukkah songs (sans Mormon influence).

“Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” is a seasonal favorite. The catchy melody manages to teach us about the Hanukkah candles- “One for each night, they shed a sweet light to remind us of days long ago”- while bringing in the Hora. And really what event wouldn’t be improved with the addition of a good Hora?

“Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)” is actually part of the traditional Hanukkah liturgy. It’s recitation often involves people slowly swaying with arms around each other. The actual version in the siddur is long. Very long. It is six stanzas filled with stories of the exiles of the Jewish people. But the English version Rock of Ages is short and happy. It does sound a little like a Church hymn, but who’s to say that’s a bad thing?Debbie Friedman’s “I am a Latke” is a little after my time, but telling the song from the point of view of an inanimate potato pancake eagerly waiting for Hanukkah is gloriously postmodern. There is a social message where the latke reminds listeners to think of the poor and hungry. It also makes me want to dance.

Another Debbie Friedman song that gets a lot of play on Hanukkah is “Not By Might and Not by Power.” It isn’t directly related to Hanukkah but its message of nonviolent confrontation is fitting in a holiday that stars Judah the Maccabee who according to the book of Maccabees was a hard core zealot. The version of the song I found is super lame but I grew up singing it at various school sponsored Hanukkah events and even once at the White House Hanukkah party, which was awesome.

“Mi Yimalel” is my absolute favorite Jewish holiday song.  To be sung both in Hebrew and English, preferably in round form. The song manages to succinctly sum up the Jewish experience in a few lines:

Who can retell the things that befell us,

Who can count them?

In every age, a hero or sage

Came to our aid.

It also showcases Hark! (an extremely underused word in today’s music scene.)

Those are some of my favorites. What are yours?


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