As December rolled around each year while I was growing up, I remember my mom decorating for Hanukkah. We had a large and beautiful Star of David decoration, crusted with blue and silver garland and covered with blue light bulbs. While my family slept, I frequently crept out of my bedroom to switch on the electricity for the star and sit in the darkened living room with it. I thought about all the Christians who were celebrating the Christmas season with joyful energetic songs.
But the Hanukkah songs I heard growing up were the same five tired songs, over and over: Rock of Ages, I Had a Little Dreidel, Who Can Retell?, Hanukkah O Hanukkah, Hanukkah A Beautiful Holiday. Yuck! Their energy pales in comparison to the songs my family and I celebrate with now, such as Tom Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica. It didn’t make it better to hear those old songs in Hebrew as well as English, or to be told that Hanukkah was a minor holiday in Judaism over which we shouldn’t really make a fuss. I always yearned for great Hanukkah songs in English that I could sing in December. I dreamed that they would add more musical joy to my family’s Hanukkah parties.
Music is so important to my spirituality. I remember things better when they are set to music. When I attend worship services at synagogue, it is the music that takes me to a feeling of connection to God and community. The words of the prayers don’t feel nearly as beautiful or spiritual without an accompanying melody. I remember the prayers with the music; when I’m trying to recall a particular phrase, I sing to myself in my head (don’t you sing the alphabet song when trying to remember the order of the letters?).
I was uplifted in 1983 when Peter Yarrow (of the folk music trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) wrote the Hanukkah song Light One Candle. It was the beginning of what has become a treasury of new Hanukkah songs in English for an American audience. My current playlist includes 38 songs. I am so excited to share them at my family’s Hanukkah party. The Indigo Girls version of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah gets my toes tapping. Kenny Ellis’ Hanu-Calypso on the album Hanukkah Swings makes me want to get up and dance. I can easily sing along with Joe Black (Eight Nights of Joy) which brings a smile to my face. Check out Be A Light from Neal Katz for exactly the right spirit to make a happy family celebration of Hanukkah.
These new Hanukkah songs are accessible and add obvious joy to the holiday. They add an extra sizzle to my Hanukkah party as the potato latkes (pancakes) sizzle in the frying pan. I listen to them in the car during December as I go to meetings or on my errands. I am enthusiastic about sharing them with my friends and family members. They are available on iTunes. Like my Facebook page Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears and find more Hanukkah songs there.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.