Chanukah Memories and Melodies
MUSIC - "Chanukah, oh Chanukah"
Elliott Forrest: Chanukah, a festival of freedom, family, and food. I'm Elliott Forrest; welcome to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies." In this hour we'll hear from six well-known Jewish artists about their memories of Chanukah, and the music the holiday brings to mind.
First up: Broadway, film, and television star Tovah Feldshuh. She's played strong Jewish women from Golda Meir to Dr. Ruth to Fanny Brice's mother in "Funny Girl."
Tovah Feldshuh: Chanukah was always celebrated at my Aunt May and Uncle Harold Silverman's apartment at 955 Walton Avenue in the Bronx.
I had a beautiful plaid taffeta party dress with Mary Jane black patent leather shoes and white anklets that had ruffles on the end. And of course, I had a matching plaid bow for my hair.
My Aunt May's apartment was permeated with the delicious aroma of latkes frying in pans. Multiple pans, I might say. And they would be accompanied by Mott's applesauce and sour cream. You could choose your topping.
Elliott Forrest: Latkes are potato pancakes, fried in oil, like most foods associated with Chanukah. You'll find out why in just a bit.
Tovah Feldshuh: Our festive celebration was very cozy. And I remember feeling connected, not just to my grandparents, who were European, and my great great great great great great great grandparents, but to our Jewish forebears and above all the wonderful Judah Maccabee, that valiant guerilla warrior who with his troops defeated what looked like like an overpowering enemy.
Elliott Forrest: In Judaism, holidays begin at sunset. Chanukah lasts eight days, and each evening we light candles in a special candelabra called a menorah, or chanukiah. The first night, just one candle, the second night two candles, and so on. Plus, the menorah has a "helper" candle -- the shamash -- that's used to light all the others.
Tovah Feldshuh: Once I was bat mitzvah, I was given the privilege of singing the Chanukah blessings. And it was a thrill for me. These were melodies I had heard my family sing as long as I could remember. The first blessing is about the commandment to kindle the Chanukah lights.
MUSIC - Tovah Feldshuh sings "Baruch ata adonai"; crossfade to first Candle Blessing, from David Ludwig's "Hanukkah Cantata"
Tovah Feldshuh: The second blessing thanks God for the wondrous deeds performed to save our ancestors.
MUSIC - Second Candle Blessing, from David Ludwig's "Hanukkah Cantata"
Tovah Feldshuh: The third blessing, which is said only on the first night of Chanukah, is one of the favorite blessings of the Jewish religion. Where we say how grateful we are, how glad we are to have made it to this day.
MUSIC - Third Candle Blessing, from David Ludwig's "Hanukkah Cantata"
Elliott Forrest: That was David Ludwig's arrangement of the Candle Blessings, from his Hanukkah Cantata, sung by Choral Arts Philadelphia, with Matthew Glandorf conducting.
Tovah Feldshuh: When I was a little girl, I remember just one big menorah. But in my home we have a multitude of menorahs that we light for Chanukah. My children made their own chanukiahs at the 92nd Street Y Nursery School. So we light those. We light my parents' chanukiah, that's modern from Israel, and we light Barbra Streisand's chanukiah. She lived across the street, and when she was moving out, she called me and she said "Tovah, you want any of my chazzerai?" And I said, "Barbra, the truck is arriving immediately."
Elliott Forrest: Just in case you don't know, "chazzerai" is Yiddish for "junk." You're listening to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies"; I'm Elliott Forrest. Opera played a big role in Tovah Feldshuh's childhood.
Tovah Feldshuh: My parents had LPs of the opera. And by opening opera to me, they opened a secret door inside of which lay treasures I had never known before.
There was a coterie of brilliant Jewish opera singers at City Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York. Jan Peerce, Beverly Sills, Roberta Peters, Richard Tucker, to name a few. And Jan Peerce was one of the great ones who would sing not only his arias, but a slew of Jewish songs in Yiddish and in Hebrew.
Music - "Al Hanisim," sung by Jan Peerce
Elliott Forrest: Jan Peerce, with the Chanukah song "Al Hanisim" -- "For the Miracles" -- thanking God for the mighty deeds performed for our ancestors -- and for us. Gershon Kingsley conducted.
Tovah Feldshuh: I remember somebody more religious saying, "Listen, this was just a minor military holiday. It's a nothing." I said, "Nothing to you. In America it's a very important counterbalance to the Great American Christmas."
Elliott Forrest: And speaking of that "other" December holiday.... Tovah Feldshuh acknowledged the dilemma that children in mixed marriages sometimes face, with her version of the song "Shalom Santa."
MUSIC - "Shalom Santa," sung by Tovah Feldshuh
Elliott Forrest: That was actress Tovah Feldshuh with "Shalom Santa." Music by Douglas Cohen and lyrics by Tom Toce, with additional material by Judy Gold. The pianist was Scott Cady. You're listening to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies"; I'm Elliott Forrest.
Aaron Dworkin is a poet-journalist, social entrepreneur, and the founder of the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. His own background is pretty diverse, given the heritage of his birth parents and his adoptive parents….
Aaron Dworkin: I'm a Black, white, Jewish, Irish, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, who grew up with a big Afro playing the violin. I was adopted by a white Jewish couple, who were from Chicago and had moved to New York, and who already had a birth son, my older brother. So I was, in many ways, literally the black sheep of the family, and not just because of color, but you know, they really were kind of all scientists, and very thoughtful and measured. And I tended to be always kind of a bit more spontaneous, a bit more, uh, maybe emotional.
Elliott Forrest: The Dworkins weren't strictly observant Jews, but they did celebrate the eight nights of Chanukah, with an emphasis on taking time with family to think about what you were doing with your life. And that's reflected in how Aaron Dworkin celebrates now.
Aaron Dworkin: So my family and I, we love to come together for Chanukah. And that's my wife, Afa, and our two boys, Noah and Amani. We wanted to instill in them a sense of family, but also a connection, to their Jewish heritage and to the history surrounding the holiday and how it connects to their lives. So for us there's really two components to this, kind of a culinary component, which is really, really big for us, as well as a religious, historical component, directly related to Chanukah.
Elliott Forrest: For the culinary component, Aaron Dworkin does a little research about what's for dinner.
Aaron Dworkin: A great example is latkes, which we love and especially the boys love, so there I might talk about the fact that, even though, especially today, most people associate them with Chanukah, they actually descend from these Italian pancakes that were made with ricotta.
Elliott Forrest: For the religious, historical component...
Aaron Dworkin: We really look at, how does it inform or inspire our current lives? So, you know, we think about the Maccabees, and we think about the retaking and cleansing of the temple. And, what is our current temple, if you will, in our lives? What are we fighting to make better in the world? And obviously for Afa and me, a huge part of that is the field of the arts, and especially classical music.
Elliott Forrest: That's because Afa Dworkin, who is also a violinist, is the artistic director of The Sphinx Organization. Aaron Dworkin had split musical loyalties as a kid: he was a serious violin student who also loved folk music.
Aaron Dworkin: So I grew up with Woody Guthrie, and Peter Paul and Mary, Leadbelly, and so many others. And I think we're able to reprise that during Chanukah, listening to, for example, "Hanukkah Dance," by Woody Guthrie.
MUSIC - "Hanukkah Dance," performed by Woody Guthrie
Elliott Forrest: Woody Guthrie wasn't Jewish, but his second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt, was, and in the 1940s he wrote a number of Chanukah songs for their children. Chanukah brings a wide range of music into the Dworkin household.
Aaron Dworkin: We invariably will find ourselves listening to the Jewish Argentinian composer, Osvaldo Golijov, whom we've had the opportunity to perform with multiple times. He has a work called "Tenebrae" that is just gorgeous, that takes you on this journey, that ultimately at the end you find yourself in a place of solace, of comfort. And we love that and how that almost reflects the journey that we take, thinking about the history of the holiday and ultimately being comforted by our sense of community and culture. But also looking forward to the work that still lies ahead.
MUSIC - "Tenebrae" by Osvaldo Golijov (excerpt)
Elliott Forrest: The final portion of "Tenebrae" -- "Darkness" -- by Osvaldo Golijov, performed by the Kronos Quartet. I'm Elliott Forrest, and you're listening to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies." Alisa Weilerstein is a busy concert cellist.
Alisa Weilerstein: For me, Chanukah is about family. It's about food. It's about telling stories, and togetherness, and passing the story and tradition down from generation to generation.
Elliott Forrest: Alisa Weilerstein says that as a kid, she was a bit of a ham (so to speak), and insisted on recounting the story of Chanukah all eight nights of the holiday.
Alisa Weilerstein: Here's my version of the Chanukah story. In the year 168 BCE, the Greek Empire was ruled by an especially nasty king, out of many nasty kings, called Antiochus the Fourth. He insisted that the Jews assimilate into Greek religion. And he outlawed any form of Jewish practice. And to make his message ultra clear, he desecrated the temple of Jerusalem and sacrificed pigs at its altar. Of course, the Jewish people resisted, with this wonderful army, this wonderful scrappy militia of the Maccabees that defeated the mighty Greek/Syrian army over a two year campaign. And the Jews won back their freedom to practice their own religion. Upon return to the temple,there was only enough oil to light the lamps for a single night. But of course the miracle, the miracle of Chanukah, is that this little jug of oil lasted a full eight nights. And so this is why we celebrate Chanukah over a period of eight nights, and we eat lots of really greasy, oily, wonderful food. And this is why it's one of the most fun holidays in my view.
Elliott Forrest: But for Alisa Weilerstein, there's more to the holiday than the story and the food.
Alisa Weilerstein: Chanukah for me was always associated with winter holidays time, which meant that we had more time together as a family. And we also had time when, you know, friends would come over to the house and students would come over and we would read chamber music and kind of play chamber music endlessly. One of the pieces that my parents and I actually still play together, but played together, especially while I was growing up, was the Dvořák "Dumky" Trio. And we've been playing that together since I was about eight years old.
Elliott Forrest: "Dumky" is a Slavic term that originally referred to laments of captive people, but that's probably not why the three Weilersteins read through it on Chanukah. Alisa's father Donald was the first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet for 20 years, and her mother is the pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. Together, the family has performed and recorded as the Weilerstein Trio. Here they are with the third movement of Dvořák's "Dumky" Trio, which Alisa says starts in ethereal territory and then turns into a family conversation.
MUSIC - "Dumky" Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90, B. 166 by Antonín Dvořák, third movement (Andante)
Elliott Forrest: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein says…
Alisa Weilerstein: I have two daughters. And, I hope eventually they remember the food and the togetherness and the laughs and the stories, and will carry that on.
Elliott Forrest: I'm Elliott Forrest, and this is "Chanukah Memories and Melodies." You can find information about all the music in this program at our website, WQXR.org. Coming up: three more artists, with their memories of Chanukah.
BREAK MUSIC - Chanike Oy Chanike - instrumental, performed by Sruli and Lisa
Elliott Forrest: You're listening to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies." Daphna Mor is a recorder virtuoso and singer.
Daphna Mor: Growing up in Israel, we celebrated Chanukah by gathering in the evenings to light the candles, sing many, many songs, eat latkes and sufganiyot, which is a big deal. Sufganiyot are the doughnuts, with different fillings. There's no focus at all on gifts, really. You might get from your grandparents a little bit of money at the first night, but it is really a secondary element of the holiday. Which I know is very different from the way we celebrate it here in the United States.
We have many children's songs for Chanukah. There was a lot of, uh, new songs created at the early stages of the country and even before, to add to the canon of children's songs in Hebrew. And one of my favorite ones is actually a miniature of a song. It's only four lines. It talks about how I will light my single, very thin little candle. And I like it because it's very intimate. And when I sing this song, I always think for some reason about my grandmother, Luna, who was the glue of our family, but a very soft spoken, quiet person.
MUSIC - Daphna Mor sings "Ner Li." Crossfade to "Ner Li" sung by the group Pizmon.
Elliott Forrest: "Ner Li," with words by Levin Kipnis and music by Daniel Samburski. Sung first by Daphna Mor, and then by Pizmon, the Jewish a cappella group of Columbia University, Barnard College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Daphna Mor: "Mi Yimalel" is one of the songs that you sing immediately following lighting the candles, and it is very celebratory and upbeat and celebrates the bravery of the Maccabim. In English, it would be, "Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them? In every age a hero or sage came to our aid."
MUSIC - "Mi Yimalel" sung by Kol Zion Lagola choir
Elliott Forrest: "Mi Yimalel," arranged by Marc Lavry, and recorded in the 1950s by the Kol Zion Lagola choir -- Israel's first professional choral ensemble. The song -- about Jews standing united -- was written in 1936, by Menashe Ravina.
Daphna Mor's background is part Sephardic -- Jews who trace their ancestry back to medieval Spain -- and part Ashkenazi -- Jews from Central Europe.
Daphna Mor: My Ashkenazi family unfortunately was very small because most of my relatives perished in the Holocaust. And as a kid my experience of that side of the family was very sad, very lonely, very quiet. Opposite to that was my Sephardi family, which was very large and communal. For me, sharing Sephardic songs is one of my biggest joys. These songs are sung either in Hebrew or Ladino, which is the language of the Sephardis in the Ottoman Empire, where many of them settled after the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula.
Elliott Forrest: Daphna Mor has taken her passion for Sephardic music on tour, with soprano Nell Snaidas. In 2018, they brought a group of musician friends to the studios of New York Public Radio for a Chanukah program.
Daphna Mor: So this song is "Hazeremos una merenda," which is all about, we're going to have a party, and someone is asking, "What time?" and someone is answering, "I will tell you," and everyone says, "oh yes," and it talks about taking the measures of the oil and the flour and making bunuelos, the sufganiyot, the donuts for Chanukah.
MUSIC - "Hazeremos una merenda" (traditional Sephardic song)
Daphna Mor: Now we have the song "Kita'l tas," a celebratory song sung by the women about preparing: preparing the food, preparing the party, not forgetting the neighbor who is sick and bringing chicken soup to them. And in general, just having a great time in Chanukah.
MUSIC - "Kita'l tas" (traditional Sephardic song)
Elliott Forrest: Two Sephardic songs about preparing for Chanukah, arranged by Nell Snaidas. With Daphna Mor on recorder, Rex Benincasa on percussion, and Adam Good playing the oud. I'm Elliott Forrest, and you're listening to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies."
Eric Jacobsen is a conductor and cellist. His mother was Jewish, and both his parents were professional musicians. So, like Alisa Weilerstein, he grew up in a household full of chamber music.
Eric Jacobsen: During the holiday season, my parents would often have these gatherings with friends, musicians, and family coming over and sharing music together, being in a living room, playing chamber music, enjoying each other, and wine and food. And that in itself was really the basis for my and my brother's love of music and the shared joy of bringing people together.
One piece that really evokes that thing that happens at a party when everyone comes together, that brings humans and hearts all into the same room, is the C Minor Trio by Felix Mendelssohn, who has Jewish roots -- his grandfather was a philosopher in the German Jewish community. And I think about the times that I'd share with friends and family sitting around playing chamber music together, having a moment finding that beauty in communication without words. And I think about Mendelson's family sitting around playing chamber music, enjoying each other's company, you know, eating together, drinking together, and 200 years later, we're doing the same thing with his music.
MUSIC - Piano Trio No. 2, op. 66 in C minor, by Felix Mendelssohn, second movement (Andante espressivo) (excerpt)
Elliott Forrest: From the second movement of Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio no 2 -- his Opus 66. That was a live recording of a young Eric Jacobsen on cello, his brother Colin on violin, and Ieva Jokūbavičiūtė on piano, as heard on NPR's Performance Today in 2005. The Jacobsen brothers continued their parents' tradition of getting friends together to play music. And that's how the orchestra they founded – and dubbed The Knights – Knights with a K – was born.
Eric Jacobsen: One of the albums that The Knights have released is a holiday album, and we included on this recording an old Hebrew prayer called "Haneros Haluli," which is the song that's sung right after lighting the candles of the menorah. And it's a beautiful idea. It's the concept that you light the menorah, but then you don't use the candles for the intention of seeing, you just stare at them, and you have a moment that has no other purpose than being together and reflecting. And my brother arranged this in such a beautiful way for The Knights, and I was lucky enough to conduct it.
MUSIC - "Haneros Haluli" (excerpt) - orchestral
Elliott Forrest: A contemporary take on an ancient prayer. Eric Jacobsen, Artistic Director of the ensemble The Knights, conducted "Haneros Haluli," from the album "The Knights Before Christmas." Yes, they really called it that. The arranger and violin soloist was Eric's brother Colin Jacobsen. I'm Elliott Forrest, and you're listening to "Chanukah Memories and Melodies."
Now here's the recording of "Haneros Haluli" that inspired the arrangement we just heard. The violinist is identified as H. Steiner, and this is one of the earliest known recordings of klezmer music. It was made in Poland in 1909.
MUSIC - "Haneros Haluli" (excerpt) - old violin
Elliott Forrest: We heard about that recording from our final guest, Henry Sapoznik.
Henry Sapoznik: I am a recovering ethnomusicologist and banjo player, and really interested in radio.
Elliott Forrest: Yiddish radio that is -- Henry Sapoznik created the Yiddish Radio Project for NPR. He has a vast knowledge of klezmer music, and he founded a long-running end-of-December gathering called Klezkamp. Another recording he mentioned -- a much more recent one -- is "Dance of the Dreydls." It was arranged by Michael Mclaughlin for the Boston-based group Shirim, and it's on their album "Klezmer Nutcracker."
MUSIC - "Dance of the Dreydls"
Elliott Forrest: Henry Sapoznik says there are two kinds of Jewish holidays.
Henry Sapoznik: A din is a law and a minhag is a tradition. So a number of Jewish holidays -- Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur -- these are dins, these are laws. And some holidays reflect a historic moment like Chanukah, and it's a minhag, it's a tradition. It's a vest-pocket kind of holiday, because you're not celebrating it in a synagogue; this is a home celebration.
And in my family, having just come to the United States with basically nothing, and having survived the war, I really feel that the Chanukah that I grew up with was almost untouched by American commercialism.
Our holidays were modest, so we would do, obviously, lighting the menorah; my mother would make her terrific latkes, and we would play with a dreidel, the four-side spinning toy. The letters on the side of the dreidel give you instructions on what to do. So, as we did -- played for pennies -- it would either tell you to put a penny in, to take a penny out, or to take the whole lot.
Elliott Forrest: Whether you're Jewish or not, you've probably heard the 1927 gem "I Have a Little Dreidel" -- though in Yiddish it's, "I AM a Little Dreidel." Henry Sapoznick sang it for us.
Music - "Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl," sung by Henry Sapoznik
Henry Sapoznik: The sense of continuity and survival was tremendously visceral in our home. And the whole thing about Chanukah, about returning to your home to find desecration and destruction, and to rebuild your life, well, all of these tracks were very powerful to us.
Elliott Forrest: Henry Sapoznik's father was a cantor, trained in the city of Rovno, now in Ukraine.
Henry Sapoznik: And even though I have great memories of him singing during Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur and so forth, when it comes to invoking his voice in my mind, Chanukah comes to mind.
This recording was made in 1947 in a displaced person's camp in Linz, Austria. It was paid for by some of the other survivors in the camp, who were enthralled with his voice. This is an excerpt of the prayer B'rikh Sh'meh.
MUSIC - Prayer "B'rikh Sh'meh," sung by Zindel Sapoznik (excerpt)
Elliott Forrest: From a non-Chanukah prayer, sung by Cantor Zindel Sapoznik. Chanukah music is not all traditional -- and not all old.
Henry Sapoznik: A number of American Jews have actually added to the canon. One of them, Tom Lehrer, who was a brilliant satirist, late in his recording career came up with his song "Hanukkah in Santa Monica," which was, as with all of his stuff, incredibly clever and sort of insularly brilliant.
MUSIC - "(I'm Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica," performed by Tom Lehrer
Elliott Forrest: Tom Lehrer performing his song "Hanukkah in Santa Monica." Now, one last tune that's part of many people's Chanukah memories, including mine: "Maoz Tsur" -- "Rock of Ages." Rodney Winther leads the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Wind Symphony, in the finale of Samuel Adler's Chanukah Suite "To Celebrate a Miracle."
MUSIC - "Maoz Tsur" from "To Celebrate a Miracle" by Samuel Adler, for wind symphony
Elliott Forrest: Thank you for joining us for "Chanukah Memories and Melodies," a production of WQXR in New York. This program was written and produced by Miriam Lewin. Our thanks to all of our guests, plus Naomi Lewin, Jon Bloom, Anne Bloom, Fred Child, Craig Rutenberg, Leora Shamir, Maya Zak, Becky Gold, and the sound archives of the National Library of Israel. Daphna More played the recorder, and we had production help from Laura Boyman, Noah Gilfillan, and Zo Bailly. The show was edited and mixed by Max Fine. The executive producer is Eileen Delahunty. For a complete playlist, please visit our website, WQXR.org. I'm Elliott Forrest…wishing you a very happy Chanukah.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.