Some holiday songs’ origins
“Maoz Tzur,” recording by Abraham Tzevi Idelsohn. (photo from Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880-1948 by Yehoash Hirschberg)
What do we have every year at Chanukah but rarely think about in terms of their origins? The songs. In a Hadassah Magazine article of some years ago, Melanie Mitzman quotes Velvel Pasternak on this subject. He said Chanukah songs are no more than a century old because Chanukah is a post-biblical holiday.
Pasternak is a musicologist, conductor, arranger, producer and publisher specializing in Jewish music. He has been described as “an expert on the music of the Chassidic sect and probably the largest publisher of Jewish music anywhere, although he is quick to note that publishing Jewish music is a business that attracts few rivals.”
The founder of Tara Publications, Pasternak has been responsible for the publication of 26 recordings and more than 150 books of Jewish music since 1971, spanning the gamut of Israeli, Yiddish, Ladino, cantorial, Chassidic and Holocaust music.
Most Chanukah songs, he told Mitzman, have been adapted from old folk melodies, have more than one set of lyrics and/or have been translated from language to language.
“Maoz Tzur,” for example, is called “Rock of Ages” in English. As Ariela Pelaia explains on thoughtco.com, it was written sometime in the 13th century by someone named Mordechai, and is a Jewish liturgical poem or piyyut, written in Hebrew originally, about “Jewish deliverance from four ancient enemies, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman and Antiochus.” It is usually sung after lighting the chanukiyah. Its six stanzas correspond to five events of Jewish history and a hope for the future. Of its six stanzas, often only the first stanza is sung (or the first and fifth), as this is what directly pertains to Chanukah.
The authorship of the Yiddish song “Oy Chanukah,” or “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah,” in English, is unknown. According to the Freedman Jewish Music Archive at the University of Pennsylvania Library, alternate names of the Yiddish version of song have been recorded as “Khanike Days,” “Khanike Khag Yafe,” “Khanike Li Yesh,” “Latke Song (Khanike, Oy Khanike),” “Yemi Khanike” and “Chanike, Oy Chanike.” The standard transliteration of Chanukah in Yiddish, according to the YIVO system, is Khanike.
The Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg published two classical compositions that make extensive use of this tune: “Freylekhs” for solo piano by Hirsch Kopyt, published in 1912 but performed as early as 1909; and “Dance Improvisation” for violin and piano by Joseph Achron, published in 1914 (composed in December 1914 in Kharkov, Ukraine).
The lyrics of the Hebrew version, which has the same melody, were penned by Avraham Avronin. The words correspond roughly to the original (more so than the English version), with slight variations for rhyme and rhythm’s sake. Thus, the first line names the holiday; the second calls for joy and happiness (using two synonyms); in the third, the speakers say they’ll spin dreidels all night; in the fourth, they will eat latkes; in the fifth, the speaker calls everyone to light the Chanukah candles; the sixth mentions the prayer Al Hanissim (On the Miracles).
The only big change is in the last line. Whereas the original calls us to praise God for the miracles He performed, the Hebrew one praises the miracles and wonders performed by the Maccabees. This reflects the anti-religious attitude of early Zionism, evident in many other Israeli Chanukah songs. In Israel, it’s still a very popular song, but, since the country has a rich inventory of Chanukah repertoire, it is not as popular as the English or Yiddish versions in North America.
“I Have a Little Dreydl,” also known as the “Dreidel Song,” is very famous in the English-speaking world. It also has a Yiddish version. The Yiddish version is “Ich Bin a Kleyner Dreydl,” “I Am a Little Dreidel.” The lyrics are simple and are, not surprisingly, given its title, about making a dreidel and playing with it.
The writer of the English lyrics is Samuel S. Grossman and the composer is listed as Samuel E. Goldfarb. The Yiddish version apparently was both written and composed by Mikhl Gelbart, known as Ben Arn, the Son of Aaron. Therefore, there is a question about who composed this music, as the melody for both the Yiddish and the English versions are precisely the same and the meaning of the lyrics in both versions is largely the same. However, in English, the song is about a dreidel made out of clay, which would be hard to spin, whereas in the Yiddish, the four-sided spinning top is made out of blay, which is lead.
Another popular dreidel song is “Sevivon,” with sevivon, sivivon or s’vivon being Hebrew for dreidel, which is the Yiddish word for a spinning top. “Sevivon” is very popular in Israel and with others familiar with Hebrew.
“Al Hanasim” is another popular Hebrew song for Chanukah. It is taken from the liturgy, but it is also an Israeli folk dance. The song is about thanking God for saving the Jewish people. The most popular tune, however, is relatively recent, having been composed by Dov Frimer in 1975.
The Chanukah song “Mi Y’malel” opens with the line, “Who can retell the mighty feats of Israel,” which is a secular rewording of Psalms 106:2, which reads “Who can retell the mighty feats of God.”
“Ner Li” translates as “I Have a Candle.” This is a simple Hebrew Chanukah song that is more popular in Israel than in the Diaspora. The words are by Levin Kipnis and the music is by Daniel Samburski.
Kipnis also wrote the words for “Chanukah, Chanukah,” which is a traditional folk song originating in Israel. In a completely different vein, “Judas Maccabaeus” is an oratorio by George Frideric Handel. During Chanukah, the melody for the oratorio’s “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” is used by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities for the hymn Ein Keloheinu.
Last for this article, but certainly not the only remaining Chanukah song, is “Ocho Kandelikas.” This Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) song was written by Jewish-American composer Flory Jagodain in 1983, explains Pelaia. She adds that its lyrics describe “a child joyfully lighting the menorah candles,” saying that “beautiful Chanukah is here,” and describing all the wonderful things that will happen this time of year. The song counts out the eight candles for the eight days of Chanukah.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.