Where Are All the Hanukkah Songs?

Hanukkah menorah. Photo by Shawn Anderson via Flickr/CC
Hanukkah menorah. Photo by Shawn Anderson via Flickr/CC

If you’ve been to a shopping mall or turned on the radio since Thanksgiving, chances are you’ve heard at least one of these Christmas standards: “Let It Snow!,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas” or “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

What’s one thing those songs all have in common? Besides being ubiquitous this time of year, they were all written by Jewish composers, mostly in the 1940s and ‘50s. So if Jews are writing all the Christmas classics, who’s writing the Hanukkah songs?


There are actually a lot of Hanukkah songs, says Lihi Shadmi, an early childhood educator at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center in LA. Most of us just haven’t learned them.

“I grew up in an Israeli household so for me there are so many Hanukkah songs,” Shadi said. “And most of them are in Hebrew.”

On a recent weekday morning, Shadmi lead a group of four-year-olds in a Hanukkah sing-along, including the classics “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Oh Chanukah.”

On the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews traditionally light candles, recite blessings and sing songs marking the victory of a group of Jewish rebels against their Syrian/Greek rulers more than 2,000 years ago.

The best-known Hanukkah song is also the oldest: the hymn “Maoz Tzur,” or “Rock of Ages.”

“The melody of ‘Maoz Tzur’ comes out of a concatenation of influences of different hymn melodies that were done in the seventeenth century, during the time period of the German Reformation. And various scholars who have looked at it have been able to trace the origins of these melodies to these hymns. And by the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century we get ‘Maoz Tzur’ in the framework that we know it today,” said Mark Kligman, a professor of Jewish music at UCLA.

That melody has been used in different parts of the Jewish liturgy, including for the candle blessings.

But most of the Hanukkah songs we know today can be traced back to the Tin Pan Alley era of the 1910s and 20s, when Jewish immigrants in New York created a whole new genre of more playful Hanukkah songs. Samuel Goldfarb wrote “I Have A Little Dreidel” and “On This Night Let Us Light One Little Candle Fire.” These melodies were supported by the Jewish Welfare Board, an organization in New York that helped Jewish immigrants settle in America — and part of that was through music. But newer Hanukah music — liturgical or not — hasn’t caught on in the same way.

“Jews in general are very reluctant to pick up new melodies, particularly for ritual contexts,” Kligman said.

So instead, a whole genre of comedic Hanukkah songs has emerged. One of the biggest debuted over twenty years ago on “Saturday Night Live,” Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” which rhymes the holiday’s name with words like yarmulke, funukah and marijuanuka. He unveiled the fourth version of his now-classic song just last month, listing such notable Jews as Jesus, Olaf (the “Frozen” snowman voiced by Josh Gad), Punky Brewster (played on TV by Soleil Moon Frye) and film producer Scott Rudin.

With the rise of YouTube and user-generated content, there are now countless Hanukkah parody songs, changing the lyrics of such hits as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”

Rachel Bloom (who currently stars in CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) released a 2013 comedy musical album called “Suck It, Christmas!!!” including this parody of “Santa Baby.”

“I think we were talking about how there just aren’t that many songs out there that deal with, like, Hanukkah or Judaism that are funny and also good,” said Jack Dolgen, who co-wrote and produced the album.

But there’s one Hanukkah video that’s really gone viral. “Candlelight,” performed by a Yeshiva University all-male a cappella group called The Maccabeats, has more than 10 million views on YouTube.

There have also been some hip-hop takes on the Hanukkah season, most notably Too $hort’s wonderfully strange “Hanukkah (Favorite Time Of The Year).”

This year there’s a new addition to the Hanukkah hip-hop canon. LA-based Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz and producer Diwan just dropped this eight-minute Hanukkah mixtape.

If you celebrate Hanukkah, chances are you’ll light the candles and recite the blessings, and then sing “I Have A Little Dreidel” and other well-known classics. But then you might search for the latest viral Hanukkah video and watch it with your family. So to answer the question of who will write the next Hanukkah classic: Maybe it’ll be you.