Over the last year, our resolution has been get to know our community a little better. What you like, what you dislike, who you are. We've learned from talking to you, there's a lot to enjoy by meeting our community.
Last week, we did a little post on Christmas music, and we were thrilled with the response it got. But we totally didn't expect to meet Seth, a nice Jewish kid who mentioned a project of his own... collecting Hanukkah songs!
We're always open to new music, and we didn't know a lot about the sounds of the Jewish holiday. Seth very kindly offered to teach us a few things and answer our questions about this alternative reason for the season. After the jump, it's Ten Questions with Seth Galitzer!
1) Who are you? What's your history? Why assemble Hanukkah songs in the first place?
My name is Seth Galitzer. I was born and raised in a modestly-sized town in the Midwest US. I also went to college at the medium-sized state university here, and stayed here to raise my family. Growing up, I was the only kid my age that was Jewish in town.
My kids are mostly in the same boat now. I'm not a professional musician (I'm an IT guy at the university), but I've been playing music in one form or another most of my life. I even studied music when I first started college. Now, I play strictly for fun. I've been in a blues band for the last five years, where I sing, play saxophone, and occasionally harmonica (shameless plug). I've also played in or sat in with various jazz, reggae, ska, rock, and rockabilly bands in the area. I grew up listening to the radio and radio music is what I've always liked.
Unfortunately, most music on the radio these days is sheer crap. The Winter Holiday Season always tends to grate on my nerves. Being a Jewish guy in a mostly non-Jewish population, it gets pretty overwhelming pretty quick. Most people just don't get it, and I've for the most part made peace with that. What struck me this year was the sheer volume of Christmas music that is played on the radio. I don't know what it's like in more urban areas, but around here, starting on Thanksgiving, radio stations will play a Christmas song maybe every 10th song. The frequency gradually increases until the week or so before Christmas when every song is a Christmas song. It's a bit of an overload. I mean, how many renditions of "Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas," and Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" do we really need?
I decided this year that there must be contemporary adult music for Hanukkah out there, if only I could find it. My only criteria were the music had to be good, interesting, not a cheesy satire of another popular song, and it had to be not just for kids. While I didn't find an overwhelming number of songs there, I was able to find enough different ones to last for eight days. Next year, I hope to expand my searches and find even more great new Hanukkah songs.
2) We're based in Texas, so just in case, give everyone a quick summary of Hanukkah to make sure we've all got it right.
It's OK, I'm in Kansas, not a lot of Jews here, either. A couple thousand years ago, the region of the Middle East that included present-day Israel was conquered by the Syrian-Greeks. Their ruler, King Antiochus, seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, desecrating it and using it a place of worship for Zeus. Jews were forced by law to either worship the Greek gods or be killed. A group of Jews, led by a man named Mattathias and his son Judah and calling themselves Maccabees (or the Hammers) engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Syrian-Greeks and eventually drove them out. When they returned to the Temple and saw how it had been defiled, they immediately began the process of cleaning and re-sanctifying it.
In the Temple, and in every synagogue today, there is a lamp that is supposed to burn constantly. It's called the Ner Tamid or Eternal Light, and is a symbol of God's eternal presence. Naturally, the Greeks had extinguished the light. When the Jews went to relight it, there was only enough of the special purified oil to last for one day. It would take eight days to purify new oil. They lit the lamp anyway, and by a miracle, the oil burned for eight days and so the lamp stayed lit. This is why we celebrate the holiday for eight days and light candles on each of the nights, to remember this miracle. The holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the victory over Antiochus. "Light ‘em Up" by Max!m!l is original, even if not a musical masterpiece, and gets educational points for including highlights from the Hanukkah story.
Really, in the canon of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is relatively low in religious significance. It's not even mentioned in any Jewish scripture. The only reason it gets much publicity is its proximity to Christmas. Giving gifts on the holiday is a relatively new tradition, also due to the nearness of Christmas. The dreidle, which most gentiles have heard about, is marked with four letters, one on each side. They are the first letters of the Hebrew words which mean "A great miracle happened there," referring to the miracle of the oil in the story. Common belief is that the use of the dreidle began when Jews were unable to practice or study their religion openly and used the toy as a way to surreptitiously teach without raising suspicion.
3) Hanukkah's obviously one of the oldest Winter holidays, so there has to be a rich history of traditional music that dates back to the very beginning. What do you personally think would be Judaism's "Greensleeves"? What song has held on the longest?
Probably the oldest traditional song is "Maoz Tzur," or "Rock of Ages" in English. It's one of those that is so old, nobody remembers where it came from anymore. It's a rather majestic song, but contemporary Jewish writer Craig Taubman has done some very nice things with it to make it more interesting to listen to. Here's a version I found that takes his arrangement and adds even more to it musically. The video isn't much to look at, but the music is good.
4) Like many Gentile-Americans, I'm still convinced that Adam Sandler invented Hanukkah, so set me straight. Were there any lesser-known pop-style Hanukkah songs before his?
Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Sandler. I think he's really very funny and one of my favorite dramatic actors. Hhis song is cute, it's even funny. The first couple of times you hear it. But if this is all that is presented to gentiles as Jewish or even just Hanukkah music, it's pretty sad. As far as songs that you might have head on the radio, I certainly can't think of any. Jewish songwriters are however responsible for some of the most well-loved Christmas songs. The best example of this would be Irving Berlin who wrote "White Christmas." Bing Crosby just turned it into a best-selling record.
5) There are Jewish people who don't believe in a higher power, but they might still love the idea of a week of presents. Is there a "Frosty the Snowman" type Hanukkah song that covers the season but not the faith?
Most "traditional" Hanukkah songs are not about the religious significance of the holiday, but about celebrating it in general. One old standby is "Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah." Here's a good version that includes many different musical styles. (Please excuse the Dave Koz intro, I don't take responsibility for Kenny G, either.)
6) What's some of the more unusual Hanukkah music out there? Any little known classics?
I think the most wildly original one I found this year was the Gods of Fire "Hanukkah Gone Metal" CD. A handful of tracks from this CD made their way to Youtube. Here's one called "Eight Days of Victory."
7) Speaking strictly secularly, is there a Christmas song you like most of all? And we all have that one Christmas song we never want to hear again, so what's yours?
I have to admit that I think "Silent Night" is a beautiful and haunting melody. Looking at it strictly musically, it's really a very pretty song. My least favorite is probably "Little Drummer Boy." It just drones on and on and on.... The drums, OH MY GOD MAKE THE DRUMS STOP!
8) And what's your favorite and least favorite Hanukkah songs?
Since we're talking about contemporary music here, I think my favorite of the new ones I found this year is one by the Chasidic singer Matisyahu, titled "Miracle." It surprised me because it's total pop and not really my thing at all, but it's catchy as hell and there's just something about it that grew on me every time I listened to it.
My least favorite is probably the old standby "Dreidle" song. Probably because that's the go-to song for gentiles when Hanukkah comes up. Having said that, there's a completely awesome retake of it on a cd by produced by Erran Baron Cohen, titled "Songs in the Key of Hanukkah." It's a fantastic CD that combines traditional Hanukkah songs with elements of hip-hop, reggae, and rock. It was very inspiring and it really was the reason I began my quest for Hanukkah songs in the first place.
9) Have you learned anything about your own culture while tracking down Hanukkah songs? And for that matter, have you learned anything about music in general?
Frankly, I was surprised to not find more Jewish music for Hanukkah that wasn't strictly for kids. Granted, I was only looking on Youtube and didn't cast my net very far, but I was expecting to find a lot more and really had to struggle to find enough for eight days. With as many Jews as there are in the entertainment industry, I had hoped to find much more than I did. Culturally, the more I go looking for "Jewish" music, I find that the spectrum that covers is really wide. It makes sense, since Jews have been travelling for millennium all over the globe. I find bits and pieces of many different cultures embedded in the music I discover. This kind of "global fusion" in music I find beautiful, moving, and exciting, all at the same time. My searching has opened my eyes to the more interesting aspects of genres I might have never bothered listening to before. While I can't say I'm going to run out and buy techno or country CDs, I may be willing to listen to them with more of an open mind. Here's one from The Levees with their rendition of "Ocho This one is sung in Ladino, a combination of Spanish and Hebrew, much like Yiddish is a combination of German and Hebrew.
10) Finally, we love hearing about happy memories, so as long as you're here, what's your personal favorite Hanukkah memory?
In one word: latkes. These are potato pancakes. Grated potatoes and onions, formed into a patty and fried in oil until crispy brown. We always make great heaping piles of them and you can smell it down the street when we do. We did this when I was growing up as a kid, and I still do it now with my own family. If I don't eat some every night of Hanukkah, the holiday just doesn't seem complete.
In the interest of fairness, be aware that we here at Woot did some restructuring to Seth's post to better fit our blogging needs. His original reply was packed with information, but we had to trim and reshape it a bit, so if you see anything that doesn't seem to match up, blame us and not him. Seth also surely will be around in the comments to answer any questions you might have about Hanukkah, so feel free to ask away! And speaking of asking, we still want to learn more about you. Done something great? Something ridiculous? Something Woot-related? Let us know! Maybe in 2011, you'll be the one answering the next ten questions!