This week Jewish communities all over the world are celebrating the joyous festival of Hanukkah. We all are familiar of the History of Hanukkah – in 167 B.C.E. the evil Seleucid forces of King Antiochus defiled the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Replacing the ritual objects of the Temple with statues of Zeus and other pagan artifacts, Antiochus planned to have the Jewish people “forget the Torah” and completely assimilate into Hellenistic society; we would, in effect have disappeared. But, miraculously, in 164 B.C.E, the Holy Temple was cleansed and rededicated by the small but mighty forces of the priestly family of Mattathias under the leadership of the great Judah the Maccabee. The great miracle of Hanukkah is not only a that small band of righteous fighters was able to defeat a mighty evil army, but, that despite all of the compelling forces of assimilation, we, the Jewish people still exist today. Thus it is some what ironic that present-day Jews, who feel it necessary to blend into contemporary culture, deem it appropriate to celebrate Hanukkah by defiling their own homes with symbols of foreign faiths– Oy Vey!
As Hanukkah is the festival of lights, it is a commandment to publicize the Miracle of Hanukkah, not only the cool, oil lasting for eight days miracle, but the miracle to which I referred above, the fact that we are still here and, sometimes despite our own actions, still thriving. Thus we are commanded to publicly display the true symbol of Hanukkah, the 9 branched candelabra know as a Hanukiah. Naturally, when Jews wishes to celebrate, our first response is to express our feelings in song. Throughout history, from ancient times to today, Jewish musicians have chosen not to assimilate, but rather to use contemporary indiums that speak to the people of their time to communicate the joyfulness of this and all festive occasions and to broadcast the great miracle wrought by God through the Maccabees.
We are all familiar with the Hymn Maoz Tzur, a poem written by the thirteenth century German poet Mordchai ben Yitchak. In fact the first few stanzas of the poem are an acrostic of the letters of his Hebrew name. Hazzan Eliu Feldman of NJ, points out that there are several possible origins of the musical setting but that the common melody most of us are familiar with dates back to 15th or 16th Century Germany. There is also a second prominent setting of this hymn composed by the Italian Composer Bendetto Marcello (1686-1939). This beautiful setting of Maoz Tzur is performed by the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble on their Chanukah Story CD.
Of course in every language that Jews speak there are Hanukkah songs. A good example of this is the extremely popular Ladino Melody, Ocho Kadelikas (eight candles.) Hanukkah’s Greatest Hits, the source of this selection is the title of a beautiful Hanukkah collection performed by Hazzan Ken Cohen.
I Have a Little Driedle, written in the early 1900’s by Samuel Goldfarb, (he also wrote the extremely popular setting of Shalom Aleichem for Shabbat) is an example of an American Hanukkah classic. So here are a few other examples of Hanukkah music that use the wide spectrum of musical styles and genres to color and express the delight of Hanukkah.Beginning with the traditional, we have three settings. Jan Pierce, the great Hazzan and opera star, recoded on an Album called, The Art of the Cantor, a medley of two liturgical Hanukkah classics, Ha Neirot Ha Lalu, “theses lights which we kindle”, which is said after the Hanukkah candle Blessings, and Al Hanissim, “For All of the Miracles” which is included in the Amidah (silent devotion) and grace after meals of Hanukkah.
The second example is an a Capella version of the classic Hanukkah song, Mi Yimalel, “Who can Retell” appearing on a joint venture entitled Our Song by the outstanding Hazzan, Alberto Mizrahi and the internationally renowned actor and raconteur Theodor Bikel.
Our third traditional selection is a Yiddish, Hebrew, English composition by the timeless star of stage screen and pulpit, Hazzan Moishe Oisher. Hot a Gitin Hanukkah (have a happy Hanukkah) is from the Moishe Oisher Hanukkah Party album.
Finally, a second selection from Hanukkah’s Greatest Hits performed by Hazzan Ken Cohen; this is his recording of the great song written by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, Light One Candle.
There is an enormous supply of Hanukkah music for all ages in many languages in a multitude of genres. Why not increase the joy and light of the festival by singing or playing Hanukkah music as you eat your latkes, kindle your candles, play with your Driedle or simply enjoy time with your family and friends. As you do so, you will be fortifying your Jewish identity and perpetuating the miracle that began so long ago with our pal Judah.
Hag Urim Sameiach, best wishes to all for a Happy Hanukkah from my family to yours.
Hazzan Michael Krausman
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