Pump up the volume: Music propels the way to a rededicated Jewish life

The Maccabeats, Yeshiva University's a capella group, with their 2010 YouTube sensation "Candlelight" freshens up the Chanukah story. (Courtesy Jewish Community Center of Paramus, N.J.)

NEW YORK (JTA) — My 3-year-old son is obsessed with showing people his room, sidling sheepishly over to guests and asking, “Can I show you my room?”

My son reminds me how important our “place” is — “A Room of One’s Own,” in Virginia Wolff’s words. Our rooms make us feel secure and anchor us. (Just ask a teenager how important that is.) A room enables us to recharge before heading out into the world to do our work, and contains the objects, pictures and music that entertain us, occupy and preoccupy us, and evoke memories of another time.

I’ve been thinking about this room metaphor, especially as Chanukah nears. Chanukah means dedication. What we are celebrating is the courage of the Maccabees to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of our Jewish lives, after it was defiled by the Assyrian Greeks in 164 BCE. They re-established the room for the Jews to do their sacred work in the world.

What would it mean for us to dedicate a space and to make room for Judaism in our own lives? More specifically, what does our “Jewish room” (read: Jewish identity) look like? What are the objects and pictures in it? What is the ambiance of our Jewish room?

Is it a place that we feel like ourselves, or do we feel stiff and formal in it? Is our Jewish room more like a closet tucked away, a place that is in desperate need to be organized, the dust cleared away and precious gems of our past revived? Is it a place that we feel a tinge of guilt each time we pass because it has fallen into neglect?

Chanukah is an opportunity to do a little rededication of our Jewish rooms and Jewish lives. But what aspect of Jewish life do we want to rededicate?

Classic and contemporary Chanukah music can help answer the question. We all know how central music is to enlivening a room. (My 3-year-old loves to croon away to his favorite kiddie rock on his new CD while bouncing off his bed and clutching his little ukulele.)

One of my favorite Chanukah songs is “Al Hanisim,” literally “Of the Miracles.” Traditionally inserted into the standing silent prayer, or Amidah, the blessing after meals and sung throughout the holiday, it praises God for the “miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time.” It clearly affirms God’s centrality to the story of Chanukah and for the miracle of oil that lasted eight days, and renders less central the military victory of the Maccabees.

Another classic, “Maoz Tsur,” or “Rock of Ages,” written around the 13th century in Europe, is a brief recounting of Jewish history and also focuses on God’s centrality: “Rock of ages, let our song/ Praise Your saving power; / You, amid the raging foes, /Were our sheltering tower. /Furious they assailed us, /But Your arm availed us, /And Your word, /Broke their sword, /When our own strength failed us.”

In a world in which we think that our own power/strength and ambition is the cause of our success, how do we let the realm of the spiritual/God/ that which isn’t known/ is out of our control, into our lives when “our own strength fails us”?

A more contemporary Chanukah song, “Mi Y’malel,” or “Who can Retell?” has an opening line that goes, “Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel? … Yes in every generation a hero arises to save the people.” The Russian-born Zionist Menashe Ravina plays here on the words from Psalm 106:2, “Mi y’malel g’vurot Adonai …” (“Who can tell of the mighty acts of God?”). The song places human strength and know-how at center stage. It is not surprising that the Zionist take on the Chanukah story emphasizes human agency over heavenly intervention. After all, the Zionists created the “new Jew,” who left the beit midrash (house of study) to work the land.

This Chanukah, how will you rededicate yourself to understanding Israel and its story better?

Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1983 folk song “Light One Candle” casts the particular story about the Maccabean struggle for religious freedom within a universal context, and links it to other movements of defiance and protest that bring about a more just society. With the closing stanza comes the charge to use the memory of the past as a clarion call to do justice. They sing, “What is the memory that’s valued so highly,/That we keep it alive in that flame?/ What’s the commitment to those who have died?/ We cry out “they’ve not died in vain”,/ We have come this far, always believing,/ That justice will somehow prevail;/ This is the burden and This is the promise,/ This is why we will not fail!”

This Chanukah, how does our particular centuries-old struggle against the Assyrian Greeks to win religious freedom help motivate us to help others with their struggles?

Of course, some contemporary fare is a bit more lighthearted. Debbie Friedman’s “Latke Song” doesn’t let us forget that our holiday celebration would be nothing without traditional foods with lyrics like “I am a latke, I’m a latke, and I am waiting for Chanukah to come!” The song reminds us how important traditional food can be to help us create rich associations (and full bellies) during the holiday.

What traditional recipes will you try this year? How might you spice up your repertoire with some contemporary cuisine – sweet potato and ginger latkes anyone?

Matisyahu takes a different tack. The hip-hopping Chasid’s Chanukah tune “Miracle on Ice” sets up the opposition between Chanukah and Christmas. It confronts us with the threat facing Judaism in a majority culture that seduces us to participate and our need to look heavenward for support. He tells us, “born to struggle and fall but my strength does comes not from man at all … eight nights, eight lights, and these rites keep me right/ Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.”

While it is easy to morph December into one big “holiday season” (who doesn’t like the egg nog latte at Starbucks?), what are the ways that you want to draw distinctions between your identity and practice and those of your Christian neighbors? How can you turn the discomfort of “difference” into a source of pride?

Yeshiva University’s a cappella group the Maccabeats with its 2010 YouTube sensation “Candelight” (a take-off of Taio Cruz’s No. 1 song “Dynamite”) and the Israeli group the Fountainheads from Ein Prat with “I Gotta Feelin’ Hanukkah” (a spoof on the Black Eyed Peas hit “I Gotta Feelin’”) present us with a final challenge: How can we make traditions and stories that we tell from year to year fresh, dynamic and fun?

The Maccabeats in particular retell the story, singing “I’ll tell a tale/ Of Maccabees in Israel/ When the Greeks tried to assail/ But it was all to no avail/ The war went on and on and on/ Until the mighty Greeks were gone/ I flip my latkes in the air sometimes sayin ayy ohh spin the dreidel/ Just wanna celebrate for all eight nights singin ayy oh, light the candles.”

So this Chanukah season, crank up the volume in that Jewish room of yours. Play the music loud, even wake the neighbors and discover the power of rededication.