All over the world as the Festival of Lights approaches, kids and parents alike gleefully sing a hodgepodge of holiday tunes culled mostly from Yiddish folk melodies. Though educational and certainly entertaining, their musical sophistication matches that of the 4-to-10-year-old set. Lyrics describe dreidls made of clay that tire and drop, invitations to light candles that will flicker in a row and the flour needed to prepare soufganiyot (donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes)—traditional holiday fare. Songs from Israel depict the holiday as a time to plant vineyards, build houses and pave roads. Some pieces speak to the issue of freedom from tyranny, and there are even arrangements for the liturgical text Al Hanissim. But there is a serious dearth of music written for adults focusing on the less superficial aspects of the holiday.
Only a few musical pieces fit the bill. The oratorio Judas Maccabaeus by George Frederic Handel written in 1747 can be savored in its entirety or in sections ("See the Conqu'ring Hero Comes," or "Hallelujah, Amen"). In 1919, American composer Abraham Wolf Binder wrote Judas Maccabee. And we reach back to 1821 for the only other major work on Hanukkah, Yehudah Makkabie, an oratorio in Hebrew and German by M.H. Miro.
There are some good CDs available for adult Hanukkah enthusiasts, including "Lights" by the Zamir Chorale of Boston and "The Chanukkah Story" by Western Wind. Both are artfully arranged and performed with an enthralling depth of musicality. But it would be providential if contemporary Jewish composers could find significant inspiration in the story to remedy the situation. Maybe an antiphonal piece on the civil war between the Maccabees and the Jewish Hellenists; perhaps a work highlighting the values and struggles of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world; or what of a composition emphasizing the rabbinical insistence on miracles as the essential theme of Hanukkah.
Until that music exists, let us wish one another a joyous and freilich Hanukkah, in any key.
—Charles Davidson was formerly Nathan Cummings Professor of Liturgy and Hazzanut at JTS