The Diverse Ethnomusicology of Hanukkah

Just as Hanukkah sometimes feels like the less-glorious and sparkly version of Christmas, Hanukkah songs sometimes feel like a second-best to the magnificence of the Christmas carols (e.g. ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, ‘The Truth from Above’) and other seasonal works such as the Messiah or the Christmas Oratorio. This might also partially account for the strong popularity of Maoz Tsur (‘My Refuge, My Rock’), whose melody and harmony seem to originate at least partially from a 16th century German carol, among both Israeli and Diaspora Jews. However, as is often the case with Israeli ethnomusicology, it is incredibly diverse. The repertoire of Hanukkah songs spans a 15th century English round (‘Mi Yemalel’, ‘Who can Retell’), a German carol (‘Maoz Tsur’), an extract from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus (‘Hine Hu Ba’, ‘Here He Comes’), Hassidic tunes (e.g. ‘Simu Shemen’, ‘Pour Oil’), local kibbutz traditions (e.g. ‘Omed Kol Ner’, ‘Each Candle Stands’), and many, many others. So, while perhaps not scoring the highest on musical grandeur, it still is pretty impressive as far as its ethnomusicological plurality is concerned.

(Note: the linked recordings are part of the ‘Zemereshet’ - ‘web-singing’ - project, aimed at the documentation of pre-1948 Israeli songs that are potentially in danger of being lost or forgotten. It contains to date approximately 3000 songs, including details of their composers, lyricists, notable performers and recordings, geographical origins and cultural history. Anyone interested in contributing to this important project is encouraged to contact the project team).