Earlier this Fall, Good Housekeeping magazine published a list of the 76 best Christmas songs of all time. The list was not particularly controversial, with all the usual suspects, from the classics to the rockers to the Chipmunks. After all, it was Good Housekeeping. As for me – raised Jewish and now atheist – my big takeaway was “I wonder how many tunes Good Housekeeping could find to populate a best Hanukkah songs list.” I’m going to wager there would not be 76. And remember, those are just the “best.” There must be lots of other Christmas songs in the mediocre-and-below strata.
So I began looking into this. Of course, there are the traditional classics like “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” And a whole bunch of modern folk songs either written or interpreted by the late, great Debbie Friedman. None of these songs are likely to be playing at your local mall or on your car radio this December. If you are looking for that, you’ve got Adam Sandler. His “Hanukkah Song,” originally sprung on the world in 1994, is the Hanukkah song. Like “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” it is a gimmick song. But whereas Christmas has plenty of other flavors to offer beyond the Chipmunks, Hanukkah – well, not so much.
But, there are options. There are always options. Here are five pretty awesome (and pretty recent) Hanukkah songs that maybe you don’t know.
Five bangers for 2023 Hanukkah
“Hanukkah Blessings” by Barenaked Ladies (2004)
BLN released their Barenaked for the Holidays in the Fall of 2004. It is made up of plenty of traditional Christmas songs, including a pretty cool jazzy “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” They also do a fairly unconvincing version of Bob Geldof’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” All in all, a hit-and-miss project.
There are a few nods to Hanukkah as well, with a traditional take on “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and silly, rollicking “I Have a Little Dreidel.” But the gem is the one original Hanukkah song, composed by BLN’s co-founder and lead singer Steven Page. Page, like another musician coming up, was born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, and though he didn’t often incorporate religion into his music, he has this sweet homage to the menorah which alternates between English lyrics and Hebrew prayer.
“Ocho Kandelikas” by Pink Martini (2010)
“Ocho Kandelikas” is a gorgeous song written and originally recorded by Flory Jagoda, an icon in the world of Ladino music. Ladino is the historic amalgamation of Hebrew and Spanish, which developed in the wake of Jewish expulsion from Spain throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Jagoda’s original is beautiful and simple, featuring a guitar and backing chorus.
But when Pink Martini performs it, it is bigger and bolder. The band, which hops from pop to jazz to classical music, and can sing in too many languages to count, adds piano and horns and drums and crashing cymbals and voices galore without losing Jagoda’s lovely and childlike melody. It was released on their 2010 Joy to the World album, which is jam-packed with traditional Christmas numbers. “Ocho Kandelikas” is one of two Jewish songs that made the cut. (“Elohai N’tzor” is the other.)
“Puppy for Hanukkah” by Daveed Diggs (2020)
Like the aforementioned Steven Page, Diggs had a Jewish mother and Christian father. He embraced both cultures growing up, and it shows up in the eclectic career he has forged over the past two decades. Diggs won a Tony for his pioneering work in Hamilton on Broadway, an Independent Spirit award for his role in Blindspotting and has recently been the star of TNT’s adaptation of Snowpiercer.
And he has built a career in hip hop as well, performing with William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes in clipping (stylized). He worked with both producers as well as with the Disney Channel to come up with this infectious story about a boy who wants … well, you can probably guess. Over a vaguely klezmer intro, Diggs’ droning flow mentions latkes and apple sauce, the menorah and the Brachot, and of course, the puppy that he desperately wants. The song is funny…
“Okay, first night and I’m feeling all right – Mama came with a gift-wrapped box – It don’t bark, it don’t bite, don’t cry when I shake it – So I’m pretty sure that it’s just socks.”
… without ever losing its beat. Or its faith. I don’t want to spoil things, but there is a happy ending.
“Hanukkahween 2” by BLP Kosher (2022)
This is more hardcore rap than Diggs’ track, and to be honest, apart from the title, I don’t think it says much of anything about Hanukkah. But Judaism runs through most of Benjamin Pavlon’s (AKA BLP Kosher) songs, whether it’s overt or not. On his first full album, Blp Kosher and the Magic Dreidel, he refused to dis Kanye on “Jew on a Canoe,” preferring instead to engage in a conversation. He’s somewhat angrier on “Hanukkahween 2,” not willing to take the abuses casually tossed his way.
“Hannukahween 2” has a nice tumbling piano pulse that drives it forward, and if you like it, I’d suggest you check out his 2023 collab with BabyTron – “Mazel Tron.” He is only 23 (as is BabyTron), and he is just getting better and better.
“Dreidels on Fire,” by Ben Lee (2023)
Ben Lee has been playing his own blend of alt and pop rock since he founded the Sydney-based band Noise Addict when he was 14 years old. That was in 1993. Thirty years – and almost 20 albums – later, he put out his latest single, which begins as a rather straightforward story of Judah Maccabee and the miracle of the eight nights of light. In it, he proclaims that the oil burning for eight nights surpasses the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea as the greatest miracle of all time, and asks “How the f**k do you explain that s**t?” over and over.
The song then veers off into a brief and bitter tale of Hanukkah-related heartbreak, which seems to have little to do with the way the song began. But you can still groove to the catchy tune and wonder. I mean, exactly how the f**k do you explain that s**t?
I guess it’s just the magic of Hanukkah.