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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel with a new Hanukkah song.

Hanukkah commemorates the Revolt of the Maccabees against the Syrian Greek rulers of Israel some 2,200 years ago. As the story goes, when the Maccabees reclaimed the temple, they found just a one-day supply of oil to keep the eternal flame burning and it miraculously burned for eight days.

So, for eight nights, starting tonight, Jews light candles, eat foods cooked in oil, and complain about the paucity of good Hanukkah songs. Here is the Hanukkah gelt standard for songs, the 13th-century poem "Ma'oz Tzur."

(Soundbite of song, "Ma'oz Tzur")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: It's also sung in English as "Rock of Ages." Of course, there are other Hanukkah songs. Among them "I Have A Little Dreidel" and Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song," his 1994 ode to the holiday's inferiority complex, falling as it does in the Christmas season.

(Soundbite of song, "The Hanukkah Song")

Mr. ADAM SANDLER (Actor): (Singing) Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.

SIEGEL: But this new Hanukkah song avoids the schtick, the food and the dreidel, and it cuts straight to the "Miracle." That's the name of the song by singer/songwriter Matisyahu.

(Soundbite of song, "Miracle")

MATISYAHU (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Bound to stumble and fall, but my strength comes not from man at all. Do you believe in miracles? Am I hearing you? Am I seeing you? Eight nights and eight lights and these fights keep me right. Bless me to the highest heights with your miracles.

SIEGEL: Matisyahu, who is also known - at least to his parents - as Matthew Paul Miller, joins us from New York.

Welcome to the program.

MATISYAHU: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And I should say that you are not only the foremost Hasidic Jewish reggae singer, to my knowledge, the only Hasidic Jewish reggae singer. Or is there a whole school now that's developed?

MATISYAHU: Pretty much, I'm the only one.

SIEGEL: You're about it. Tell us about "Miracle," about the song.

MATISYAHU: I basically wanted to try to touch on some of the real ideas and the spirituality behind Hanukkah and kind of put it into a real accessible pop song, basically.

SIEGEL: Can you explain the line of the song, to me, when you said I struggle and fall, but my strength comes from...

MATISYAHU: Not from man at all.

SIEGEL: Not from man at all.

MATISYAHU: Yeah. Yeah. That's just - idea of humility, basic humility that a person's, you know, fists can only take them so far and their military, however strong it is. But at the end of the day, what survived through all of that is the light, you know, and the faith and the hope for meaning - basically, the search for meaning and belief in God. And that's the miracle really, and that's symbolized by the oil and the light.

SIEGEL: The miracle of survival.

MATISYAHU: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Miracle")

MATISYAHU: (Singing) Do you believe in miracles? Am I hearing you?

SIEGEL: It strikes me as an only-in-America combination that there's a Hasidic Jew doing reggae music very, very successfully. To you, is the entire creation of the song like this and performing it a sacred act, or is there a dimension of it that's entirely secular and banal? Or is everything infused with your own faith?

MATISYAHU: I kind of think that music in general is a sacred thing, and that's what music has kind of always been for me.

SIEGEL: And Hasidism, that movement within Judaism, which outsiders tend to know only by what they wear or how they wear their hair - actually, song and dance are very central to what Hasidism is all about.

MATISYAHU: Yeah. I think it's written by one of the Chabad rabbis that music is the quill of the soul. They also said that the chamber of (Hebrew spoken), which means like repentance or return to God, is next to the chamber of song in heaven. It's two well-known things they say over there.

SIEGEL: And for people listening who might be scratching their bare heads right now saying what does reggae have to do with a Jewish holiday? What does reggae have to do with your life and with your music?

MATISYAHU: Oh, I have two answers. One is that the basis of reggae music is founded on the Old Testament.

(Soundbite of song "Exodus")

Mr. BOB MARLEY (Singer): (Singing) Exodus.

MATISYAHU: Bob Marley or any of the classic old original reggae singers constantly going back to the Old Testament and the Psalms and using a lot of the imagery from Judaism. And the second thing I would say is that like you were saying, in America, anything is up for grabs, you know? You know, a Jewish kid growing up, turns on the radio, hears Bob Marley and hears something new about his own Jewish history through music of Jamaica. That's the way the world works today. So that's my story in a nutshell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: That's a big nutshell.

MATISYAHU: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...to handle that. So you really - you found your Judaism, your new Judaism through reggae, not vice versa?

MATISYAHU: Yeah, I would say - I mean, I started listening to that music and I started - it started to shed light to me on - wow, maybe there's something really here. There's something really powerful when I, for example, hear Bob Marley's "Exodus" - we know where we're going. We know where we're from.

(Soundbite of song "Exodus")

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) We know where we're going. We know where we're from.

MATISYAHU: The way he's singing it, it made me think, well, where am I going, where am I from?

SIEGEL: At the time, weren't you from Westchester or I mean...

MATISYAHU: Yeah. I grew up in White Plains, yeah.

SIEGEL: In White Plains, yeah. I mean...

MATISYAHU: So, yeah, there's your life. There's where you're from in your lifetime, but there's something bigger than your life also. And there's the history of your people, what you - you know, everything that they've gone through to this point to get you to where you are.

SIEGEL: Well, I know that your guitarist is with you in the studio in New York, where you're talking to us from, and you...

MATISYAHU: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...you've come prepared to do a little acoustic version of "Miracle"?

MATISYAHU: Yeah. Yeah. This is Dave Holmes, and we're going to do that.

(Soundbite of song "Miracle")

MATISYAHU: (Singing) Just living in the miracle. Candles are my vehicle. Eight nights, going to shine invincible. No longer be divisible. Born to the struggle. Keep on moving through all this hustle. Head up, head down through all of the bustle. New York City want to flex your muscle. Look so down, look so troubled. Huddle 'round your fire through all the rubble. Bound to stumble and fall, but my strength comes not from man at all. Bound to stumble and fall, but my strength comes not from man at all.

Do you believe in miracles? Am I hearing you? Am I seeing you? Oh, eight nights and eight lights and these fights keep me right. Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.

Against all odds drive on till tomorrow. Wipe away your tears and your sorrow. Sunrise in the sky like an arrow. No need to worry, no need to cry. Light up your mind, no longer be blind. Him who searches will find. Leave your problems behind. We will shine like an arrow in the sky. What's the reason we're alive is the reason we're bound to stumble and fall, but my strength comes not from man at all. Bound to stumble and fall, but my strength comes not from man at all.

Do you believe in miracles? Am I hearing you? Am I seeing you? Oh, eight nights and eight lights and these fights keep me right. Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.

Eight is the number of infinity. One more than what you know how to be. This is the light of festivity when your broken heart yearns to be free.

Do you believe in miracles? Am I hearing you? Am I seeing you? Oh, eight nights and eight lights and these fights keep me right. Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.

SIEGEL: That was great. Matisyahu, thank you very much for joining us.

MATISYAHU: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Singer-songwriter Matisyahu also wrote an essay for NPR Music about Hanukkah songs. You can find that at npr.org.

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