Beyond The Dreidel: The Songs Of Hanukkah — And How They've Changed Who says Christmas gets all the fun music? Josh Kun, of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, talks the evolution of Hanukkah music — from traditional Hebrew to hits fit for the club.
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Beyond The Dreidel: The Songs Of Hanukkah — And How They've Changed

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Beyond The Dreidel: The Songs Of Hanukkah — And How They've Changed

Beyond The Dreidel: The Songs Of Hanukkah — And How They've Changed

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/458518956/458573148" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hanukkah commemorates the reclaiming of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt. It is not some kind of Jewish Christmas.

Still, with lights, prayers and gifts in December, Hanukkah tends to get wrapped up in the same ball of snow and tinsel as Christmas. But Hanukkah has its own songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANUKAH, OH CHANUKAH")

THEO BIKEL: (Singing) Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah, come light the menorah. Let's have a party. We'll all dance the horah. Gather 'round...

SIMON: ...Though maybe not nearly as many as Christmas. That is the late with Theo Bikel with "Chanukah, Oh Chanukah." We turn now to Josh Kun from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. He joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOSH KUN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What makes a good Hanukkah song?

KUN: Well besides a good Christmas song (laughter), a good Hanukkah song has to involve, you know, lots of games - dreidel, playing dreidel, playing some more dreidel...

SIMON: (Laughter).

KUN: ...Maybe music for cooking latkes.

SIMON: Potato pancakes, kind of.

KUN: That's right. Hanukkah - a good Hanukkah song, these days, really is about festivity and singing along and having a good time.

SIMON: Well, give us an example of some of your favorite Hanukkah songs.

KUN: It's funny, you know, my relationship to Hanukkah songs really comes through - I guess what you could say the back door, but maybe it's the front door - of Christmas songs. So first, like, my favorite Jewish Hanukkah songs are actually some of the greatest Christmas songs that have been written by Jews. But...

SIMON: (Laughter) You mean, like, "White Christmas," Irving Berlin?

KUN: Yeah, like, kind of, oh, all of them. Yeah, "White Christmas," "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," most of the great, you know, English-language American pop Christmas songs, you know, were written by American Jews. Some of the greatest Christmas albums are, of course, Christmas albums by American Jews, like Barbra and Neil and Barry and the like. But I digress.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KUN: You know, I think the history of Hanukkah songs - you really actually can't separate them from the history of the mainstreaming of Christmas as a holiday. So when Hanukkah starts to kind of be rebranded in United States in the late 19th century, a big part of that rebranding was its songbook.

What kind of songs could be written that could help popularize Hanukkah among Jews in the United States? One of the earliest steps in that was taking a traditional Hanukkah song that was originally written in Hebrew "Ma'oz Tzur"...

SIMON: That's "Rock Of Ages."

KUN: ...And it becomes "Rock Of Ages" in the late 19th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK OF AGES")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Rock of ages, let our song. Praise thy saving power. Thou amidst...

KUN: This is a cantorial recording. It's actually from the incredible archives at YIVO in New York. And that choral tradition that might not sound so Jewish, that sounds much more, either Christian or broadly, just simply American, is no mistake. I think that there was a conscious effort, particularly - that was from the late '30s. But this really builds in the late 1950s, when Hanukkah songs start to really sound like more mainstream American pop.

SIMON: Adam Sandler's "Canukah Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHANUKAH SONG")

ADAM SANDLER: (Singing) Put on your yarmulke. Here comes Hanukkah.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: (Singing) So much fun-ukkah (ph) to celebrate Hanukkah. Hanukkah is...

SIMON: Originally performed on "Saturday Night Live" in 1994 to get a laugh, has it become a classic in spite of itself?

KUN: Surely, it's become - when you mention Hanukkah songs, that's probably the first song that anybody wants to talk about, which is funny because really, the song is - you know, uses Hanukkah as a way to get people to think about assimilation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHANUKAH SONG")

SANDLER: (Singing) Paul Newman's half Jewish, and Goldie Hawn's half, too. Put them together - what a fine-looking Jew.

(LAUGHTER)

KUN: And it becomes a kind of outing of Jews who people maybe didn't know were Jewish and a kind of proud naming, a roll call, of American Jewish starts and celebrities. So really, again, it's a kind of example of a Hanukkah song that's not a Hanukkah song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHANUKAH SONG")

SANDLER: (Singing) So drink your gin and tonic-kah (ph), but don't smoke marijuana-kah (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: (Singing) If you really, really, want-ukkah have a happy, happy, happy, happy Hanukkah.

Happy Hanukkah, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDLER: Thank you.

SIMON: "The Dreidel Song" was, for many American Jewish families, just about the only well-known Hanukkah song for years. There is, to my mind, a particularly fierce version by Erran Baron Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREIDEL")

ERRAN BARON COHEN: (Singing) Dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay. When I'm good and ready, dreidel I'm gon' play.

SIMON: Now, does this sound to you like the song of a, in this case, a British Jew who says, you know, I'm not going to sign on to any resemblance with Christmas music?

KUN: That's Friday night at the club, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KUN: That's Friday night at the club. Yeah, I mean I think that this is part of - you know, in recent years, there's been an attempt - and I think this is a great example of it - to kind of re-interpret or reclaim some of these songs. And in the spirit of, you know, the kind of definition of Chanukah itself, of, like, you know, rededicating, rethinking what Hanukkah can sound like. And I think that's a great example of, in a way, repopularizing, you know, these songs and maybe encouraging, you know, younger American Jews to maybe write some of their own.

SIMON: Josh Kun from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. Happy Hanukkah.

KUN: Merry Christmas, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREIDEL")

COHEN: (Singing in Hebrew).

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