If we’re being honest with ourselves, and we are, Hanukkah is not a holiday that is known for the quality of its music. While avoiding the intensive saccharinity of certain Christmas specials that will go unmentioned, we are nonetheless left with a repertoire that tends towards lovable-child-friendly-singalongs and away from something-I’d-actually-listen-to.
Sure, there’s some cute stuff out there. I give Daveed Diggs uncontested first place in the kidsongs division for the rhyme “Clarinet, no harmonica. When I get a puppy for Hanukkah.” And Michelle Citrin’s racy send up of classic winter songs, “Hanukkah Lovin’” is genuinely delightful if you’re in the mood for wordplay and latkes.
But every once in a while, I’m just looking for a piece of music that can stand the test of time.
That’s why the recordings on this list are so delightful.
Each is a new take on the Hanukkah song by a contemporary artist coming from a different musical tradition. And, most importantly, they’re really fun.
This is Hanukkah music that I do actually listen to. I hope you will, too.
Sarah Aroeste’s 2021 release Hanuká features 10 tracks of Ladino holiday songs. Like the rest of Aroeste’s oeuvre, the entire album is fantastic and worth listening to, but this interpretation of Flory Jagoda’s classic counting song is my favorite.
Aroeste draws on Israeli guitarist and vocalist Yehuda Shveiky to reimagine “Ocho Kandelikas” as a gutsy flamenco adventure to terrific effect. From the moment I heard this performance (and watched the accompanying music video), it has been on permanent rotation in my house.
“Ocho Kandelikas” has some of the most interesting covers of the Hanukkah repertoire, including Broadway/Disney star Idina Menzel’s salsa gruesa party anthem, arranged by salsero and producer Marlow Rosado, and Hip Hop Hoodios’ shout-it-out ode to the festival of lights (part of the legion of songs-where-people-shout-about-Hanukkah, the best of which may be Erran Baron Cohen’s Dreidl). Still, Aroeste’s is my favorite.
Shulem Lemmer is one of the shining lights of the New York Chassidic music scene, and he does a beautiful Moishe Oysher impression. This medley, recorded live with Freilach band and the Shira chorus, features some of my favorite hits from Oysher’s 1950 album, The Moishe Oysher Chanukah Party, which I would still consider the best Hanukkah album of all time.
I can’t stop listening to Lemmer’s version of “Hot a Gitn Khanike” and “Drei Dreidle.” Something about the buzzing electric guitar on Dave Tarras’s classic clarinet lick just works for me. May it work for you, too!
8 Days (of Hanukkah)
If you spent your early twenties playing, like I did, in an afrobeat band, you would be overjoyed to discover that Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have a Hanukkah song. And of course it’s great. How could it not be? The music video makes me feel like Fela got a holiday special on Shalom Sesame. It’s cute, but also just a fantastic song and performance. I’ll be listening to this all year long.
The Hanukkah Song 2.0
A very unscientific poll suggests that most lists of “actually good Hanukkah music” start with the phrase “I love Adam Sandler, but…”
Nissim Black and Kosha Dillz start with that exact premise and deliver a remix of Sandler’s obnoxiously catchy tune that manages to be both uplifting and danceable in the 2020s.
A la Luz de la Vela
Most of us can agree that “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah” is a distressingly mediocre song, right? I decided that it would be much improved by arranging it for six clarinets and recording it direct from my computer camera during the pandemic lockdown. See what you think.
Nat Seelen is the founder and artistic director of the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music. An award-winning clarinettist, composer, and writer, he has performed with Ezekiel's Wheels Klezmer Band, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and countless other ensembles across the world.
Kitsch and culture
Many Hanukkah songs lean heavily into kitschiness and parody, whereas the songs in this list trend toward artistic expression. How does the artistic value of holiday music affect your enjoyment or appreciation of it?
Remember your childhood
So much of our sense of cultural taste derives from experiences we had in our childhood. What Hanukkah songs did you sing when you were young and what do you think of them now?
The Hanukkah lesson
One of the classic interpretations of Hanukkah is that it’s about people fighting to preserve their culture. We all, constantly, face a tension between this preservationist urge and an impulse towards progress. What parts of your culture would you fight (although hopefully not in such a bloody manner as the Maccabees…) to preserve? What would you jettison in the name of growth and progress?
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