History of Favorite Chanukah Music

Thanks to Adam Sandler, the Maccabeats and The Leeveees, we are blessed with a plethora of Chanukahsongs.  Whether silly, or sentimental, many are based on non-liturgical sources.  That is because besides the Chanukahcandle lighting and the Al HaNisimliturgy that we add to the Amidah (T’fila), there is no other Chanukah liturgy.  So where do all our beloved Chanukah songs come from?  Some come from Yiddish or Sephardic or folk traditions, while others are based on medieval poetry or were inspired by special foods and symbols of the Festival of Lights.  Here are the backgrounds of two favorites, Maoz Tzur and I Have A Little Dreidel.

Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages) (Mordechai: text, Music: folk): Maoz Tzur is the quintessential Chanukah melody.  It is often sung immediately after the Chanukah candles have been lit and blessed.  The text is based on a Jewish liturgical poem known as a piyut.  The name is a reference to the Hasmonean stronghold of Beth-Zur.  It refers to the place where the Maccabees fought the battle of Beth Zur (House of Stone), a fortress citadel, and beat the Greek general Lysias.  This battle was momentous and paved the way for the recapture of Jerusalem and the temple. Maoz Tzur was written in the 13th century and contains six stanzas.  We generally only sing the first and last stanzas because they are the ones that relate directly to the holiday.  Written in the present tense, the first for rebuilding the temple and the last for the defeat of our enemies.  The final stanza also has an acrostic of Chazak or be strong.  The other stanzas address additional challenges that Jews have faced throughout the years.  The piyut celebrates our deliverance from four ancient enemies, Pharoah, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, and Antiochus.  They represent the exodus from Egypt, Babylonian captivity, the miracle of Purim, and finally the Hasmonean victory of Chanukah

I Have a Little Dreidel  (by Samuel Goldfarb and Samuel S. Grossman): The music was penned by Samuel E. Goldfarb along with the lyrics written by Samuel S. Grossman in 1896.  Goldfarb also wrote Areshet S’fateinu, Bayom Hahu, Magein Avot Bidvaro, and his brother Israel Goldfarb wrote Shalom Aleichem.  These brothers lived in New York City and were composing holiday and liturgical songs in the 1910’s and ‘20’s.  The Goldfarb brothers grew up on the Lower East Side of New York in a family of 11 children (!) that emigrated from Galicia, Poland.  Samuel was born in 1891 and learned how to play and read music from Israel, who was 12 years older.  In 1914, Samuel entered into an arranged marriage with Bella Horowitz, from a family that owned Horowitz-Margareten, maker of matzoh and Passover products.

During the ‘20’s, Goldfarb wrote I Have A Little Dreidel.  It was recorded on an album in 1927.  His son Gordon said “Generally speaking, in America, Yiddish music influenced the popular music of Broadway and Hollywood.  With these kinds of songs, it was the opposite – it was an American tone being brought into a Jewish context.  The dreidel song took some time to catch on and did not do so until the early 1950’s when Chanukah was becoming more commercial and parallel to Christmas.  There was no single hit recording of the tune. Its popularity was like a folk song and seems to have spread organically.  The English version is about a dreidel.  In the Yiddish version of the song, the singer is the dreidel.  The dreidelis also made of blay (lead) which is historically accurate.  That version was written and composed by Mikhl Gelbart, pseudonym Ben Aron.  Now there are many, many parody versions withdreidels made with anything and everything.  There is even a version by the popular rock group The Barenaked Ladies!

Whichever Chanukahmusic you prefer, I wish you all a happy Chanukah and a holiday season filled with light!