December 14th, 2012

Happy Chanukah!

Chanukah began last Saturday night, but since it has eight days I still get a chance to wish you a happy one—for two more days, anyway.

The words of this Chanukah song in Yiddish—written in 1924 before the Holocaust and before the establishment of Israel—are not happy. But I didn’t know that when I first heard it, and I posted it anyway because I think it’s beautiful:

The lyrics, as translated by Theodore Bikel:

O little lights of mystery
You recall our history
And all that went before
The battles and the bravery
And our release from slavery
Miracles galore.

As my eyes behold your flames
I recall our heroes’ names
And our ancient dream:
“Jews were learning how to fight
To defeat an awesome might
They could reign supreme”

“They would rule their own domain
When the enemy was slain,
The Temple cleansed and whole.
Once there was a Jewish land
And a mighty Jewish hand.”
Oh, how it moves my soul!

O little lights of mystery
You retell our history
Your tales are tales of pain.
My heart is filled with fears
My eyes are filled with tears
“What now?” says the haunting refrain.

Remember: written in 1924.

Bikel translated it that way in order to make the rhymes come out. But a more literal translation of that last verse might be:

Oh little candles,
your old stories
awaken my anguish;
deep in my heart there
a tearful question:
What will be next?


15 Responses to “Happy Chanukah!”

  1. liamalpha Says:

    Neo, thanks for posting this! As an Israeli, I was familiar with this song in its Hebrew version, and only now learned from your post that the original was in Yiddish! Quite funny, considering that I’ve known this song from kindergarten, along with so many other Israeli children. You can listen to a Hebrew version here:

    Have a happy Hannuka and a merry Christmas!

  2. Ann Says:


    Any idea who the singer is?

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Ann: it’s this group, but it was recorded many years ago and I don’t know the name of the singer.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    liamalpha: that’s so interesting. I also noticed a different tune at the link you posted. It seems the words have been set to many tunes, not just those two. I happen to really like the tune in the version I posted.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Ann: I just looked it up, and you can purchase this version in MP3 form here.

    Also, here is Bikel’s version, which is quite interesting, too. You can listen to a clip of a bit of it at the link.

  6. liamalpha Says:

    Neo – the tune is indeed different for the one I knew. But I recognized the words. The tune I posted is by Herman Zvi Erlich. I googled and discovered two more tunes, one by Leo Lyub (not sure if it’s the correct spelling):
    And the other one by an unknown composer:
    Both are in Hebrew, I’m afraid, and not quite as good as the one you posted or the one I know, but I’m posting for completeness sake.

  7. Ann Says:

    Thanks so much for doing all that research for me, Neo!

  8. M J R Says:

    neo, you may (or perhaps may not? [smile]) appreciate this compactly written piece, from Paul Greenberg, a veteran Jewish columnist . . .

    What is Chanukah?
    By Paul Greenberg
    December 16, 2011

  9. Susanamantha Says:

    Slightly off topic – Theodore Bikel is one of my favorite actors. He was perfectly cast as the submarine captain
    in “The Russians are Coming. The Russians are Coming.” He also did a masterful job as Heinie in “The Enemy Below”, a great WWII movie in case you’re interested. Two entirely different movies with Bikel in submarines.

  10. JH Says:

    Wish you and all the friends a happy and wonderful Chanukah “Hanukah” wish you all happiness may all live in peace.

    If you excuse me asking this question, I read long time ago something still back in my memory about The Temple and its distraction, all Jews keep donating for that day till today for reconstructing a new Temple….Why it took so long and still not reconstructed?

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    JH: I know next to nothing about the answer to your question. But I looked it up, and the answer (mostly gleaned from evangelical sites) appears to be that (a) it’s only very orthodox Jews who are concerned with this; and (b) the site would have to be the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock is now placed, and since that’s in Islamic hands a lot would have to change before a rebuilding.

  12. liamalpha Says:

    JH @ Neocon
    Regarding Hannukah and the temple: I’m no historian, but I can offer a layman’s explanation.
    Hannukah is a holiday to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees, around 167 BCE, and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel from the hands of the Seleucid Empire (a fragment empire from the empire of Alexander the Great). As long as the temple stood, it was the embodiment of Judaism: True worship could only by done in that one Temple by sacrifice of animals, and every Jew was religiously bounded to come to the Temple three times a year (on Sukkot/Tabernacles, Passover, and Shavout/Pentecost) to give his offerings.
    After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, Judaism went through a transformative change. With the temple destroyed, a different mode of worship had to be found. Through the work of Rabbis and scholars in the few first centuries AD (70AD to 500AD), a new Judaism was formed. Sacrifice was replaced with prayers, centralized worship at the Temple replaced with many community Synagogues, and morals were emphasized over technical religious aspects.
    Basically, the destruction of the temple is what formed Judaism as it is today. In the course of the years, the wish for a third Temple was also transformed into and ideal which will only happen at the end of days, with the coming of the Messiah. This is what most Jews, including the Ultra-Orthodox, believe.
    When Zionism arose in the early 19th century, as a secular movement seeking the restoration of sovereignty of Jews in the land of Israel, Hannukah came back to focus as a national holiday, and the re-dedication of the Temple aspect was played down.
    Today, only very fringe groups think about restoring the Temple in practice.

    More detailed historical info here:

  13. n.n Says:

    Happy Chanukah, Neo-Neocon and fellow students.

  14. Gary Rosen Says:

    Happy Chanukah, neo!

  15. ziontruth Says:

    Thanks, Neo! And thanks for posting the song. I’ve never heard of it before. Yiddish-language culture isn’t very well known in Israel, for obvious reasons.


    “Why it took so long and still not reconstructed?”

    Because it can’t, and that’s not only because of the Islamic supersessionist victory shrine sitting atop the Temple Mount. Suppose an earthquake were to reduce that building to rubble (it could easily happen—the Land of Israel is on the Syro-African Rift), still it wouldn’t be possible to rebuild the Temple. Why? Because the Holiest of Holies needs to be built on an exact spot for the Temple to be kosher, and we won’t know where that spot is until HaShem sends a prophet to tell us (speedily in our days, amen).


    “Hannukah is a holiday to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees,…”

    More accurately, Hanukkah celebrates the miraculous victory of a handful of Torah scholars over the Greek Seleucid armies of thousands. The Maccabees were not soldiers by training; they were the highest religious authorities of their day and the most erudite in Torah study. They should not have naturally won, but HaShem gave them victory as He had done for Abraham vs. the five kings, and as He would later do to the Jewish fighters against the five Arab armies in 1948–9.

    “True worship could only by done in that one Temple by sacrifice of animals,…”

    The sacrifice of animals was, and still is, required for completion of true worship, but working on one’s self was always a requirement prior to the sacrifice. In the Temple services, an animal is sacrificed, wine is libated and wheat is offered with salt, bringing an offering from the animal, plant and mineral world respectively; but an offering of contrition needs to be brought from the human world before all the others. Those who deny the priority of the first offering and those who deny the necessity of all the other offerings for completion of worship are equally in error according to Jewish Orthodoxy.

    “…a new Judaism was formed.”

    No, only a temporary form. The fact that “temporary” means two millennia is beside the point.

    “Sacrifice was replaced with prayers,…”

    Prayers, already offered together with the sacrifices when the Temple stood, now became also the placeholders for the Temple sacrifices until the restoration of the Temple (speedily in our day, amen).

    “…and morals were emphasized over technical religious aspects.”

    No, there was no change in this. Morals and the details of performing the mitzvot received the same equal treatment then as now. Judaism did not “progress” when the Temple was destroyed—quite the opposite, it regressed, because so many of the mitzvot could then no longer be performed at all. The aftermath of the destruction of the Temple was not an evolution of Judaism but a temporary setback, a mode of making do until the former glory is restored.

    “Today, only very fringe groups think about restoring the Temple in practice.”

    They’re not so fringe, but even those who believe we can already take most of the steps in the way of restoring the Temple recognize that both the mosque and, as I said, the need for a prophet to tell us the location of the Holiest of Holies are obstacles until HaShem clears them.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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