What’s On Your Hanukkah Playlist, Shifra C. Penkower?

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“What’s on Your Holiday Playlist” is a recurring feature where I ask one woman to create a holiday inspired soundtrack for us.

This Hanukkah, I asked Shifra C. Penkower to build a Hanukkah mood for us.

Shifra is an accomplished “multipotentialite” whose talents span the humanities, STEM fields, and beyond.  She is an experienced stage, screen, and voice actor, director, artist and designer, singer, dancer, writer, editor, sleuth, mother, and DIY-er—whether that involves learning HTML, fixing a VCR, or creatively solving other acronym-related challenges.  Shifra co-founded The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem, and when she is not planning their monthly events or directing their shows, she is participating in other theatre productions in one way or another, onstage and off.  A natural creative problem solver, Shifra has been a trusted team member for many projects and businesses (large and small) since the 90s, and plans on keeping that up at least until she reaches her 90s.  Then she’ll probably catch up on all the reading and painting she’s been putting off for a while.

Name of your playlist: The Perfectly Patchworked Hanukkah Playlist

What mood are you building with this playlist for yourself?

My musical taste tends to be quite eclectic, so this playlist is no different. It transitions between the classical and the contemporary. The orchestral and the off-the-beaten-track. Instead of strictly selecting songs which are obviously associated with Chanukah, I thought about themes and practices surrounding the holiday and let them lead me to songs which represented those ideas. While honoring and preserving tradition is key when it comes to keeping our customs and beliefs alive from generation to generation, I think it’s important to incorporate our unique perspectives, experiences, and passions into our observance, as well. It helps ensure a personal connection to and “ownership” of our traditions, even as times are a-changin’. (Bob Dylan didn’t make the cut this time…sorry.)

What do you imagine us “doing” while we listen to this playlist?

Anything and everything! That’s what we do over the course of our day, right? Think of this playlist as a road trip along an undulating highway, passing through pastoral landscapes, bustling cities, and everything in between, with a couple of rest stops along the way. Roll the windows down, turn the volume up, and vroom onward, my friends.

Aaron Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man

This piece has been called “a magnificent tribute to the human spirit” and that’s exactly what it is. The first time I heard this live in concert, the opening heralding notes of the trumpets flew straight to my soul and I started to cry. At the same time, I felt as though I wanted to climb the highest mountain and let out a victorious yell. The Chanukah story is about triumph of the few over the many, how the mighty fell at the hands of the weak. Even the common man can achieve great things. Do we not deserve our own fanfare?

Benedetto Marcello – Maoz Tzur

This liturgical poem is usually sung after lighting the candles every night of Chanukah. Interestingly, no matter where you go in the world, Jews everywhere tend to sing the same tune for this song.Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn another melody when I joined an a cappella group in college.  The harmonies of this composition really put me in the holiday spirit—and they sound even more glorious when rehearsed in a stairwell. Pro tip, FYI. When searching for a YouTube link for this piece, I came across a performance of it by the very choir with which my husband sang in the early years of our relationship. I took it as a sign that this song should be included in my playlist.

Flory Jagoda – Ocho Kandelikas

This catchy tune about our holiday’s “eight little candles” and festive atmosphere was written in Ladino, a Spanish-derived language which originated within the Sephardic Jewish community and became an official dialect of the community after they were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century. I’ll be directing a show about the Spanish Inquisition next year, God-willing, so I’ve admittedly got Ladino music on the brain nowadays. However, this particular song has an extra special place in my heart, as I translated a segment of it into Hebrew for an informal performance when I was in a language-immersion program in Israel a few years ago. Maybe I’ll put my Hebrew lyrics in the comments below…

Avital Macales – Count the Stars

Speaking of having a soft spot for songs and connecting past, present, and future…this next piece was composed by a dear friend for an original musical that she co-wrote with another dear friend, Sharon Katz, and which I had the privilege to direct. Two other dear friends, Amit ben Atar and Ellen Macales arranged the music and harmonies.  No matter the season, I find myself coming back to this composition and connecting in new ways to its message. When I watch the music video, I identify with its characters. True, the lyrics are almost a near-direct-translation of the Biblical text describing God’s covenant with Abraham and the promise for a brighter future even after his descendants would endure many trials and tribulations. Ultimately, though, this song is about hope and light. Bingo. Chanukah bullseye.

Imogen Heap – Hide and Seek

On a superficial level, the song title counts as a nod to one of the integral elements of the Chanukah story: that last hidden cruse of oil which was found and then miraculously kept the Menorah burning for eight days and nights. From there, my train of thought went on to ponder hidden vs. open miracles and how they each impact our lives. I started deconstructing the lyrics and finding parallels in historic events. Then I said “Shifra, enough with the analyzing…just enjoy this unique song with its mesmerizing harmonies and let it go.” Ahhhh…hypnotic.

Steve Schuster – Miraculous

A hitchhiker to whom I’d given a ride on a cold night a few weeks ago fell in love with this song on the CD I was playing and asked me to repeat the artist’s name a few times before getting out of my car, determined to look him up immediately upon returning home. If that’s not a good enough recommendation, I don’t know what is. (OK, my kids love this whole album, too, so there’s that. “Sweet Gems.” Look it up.) Title, lyrics, and upbeat style make this a natural entry for my Chanukah playlist.  [If this video is inaccessible in your location, you may listen to the song here.]

La Bottine Souriante – Ciel d’automne (Autumn Sky)

Ah, Nature… Autumn ends on December 21st, so technically, Chanukah still <ahem> falls out during autumn in 2017. Time will tell whether the season’s colorful leaves will be replaced by icicles by the time the eighth set of candles has burned out beneath one of the last autumn night skies of the year. Until then, enjoy this sweet stringed sonnet of sorts. There are no lyrics. It can feel a touch repetitive at times, but it’s so calming that it almost becomes a meditation. Put it on in the background while frying your latkes, reading or writing holiday cards, getting dressed, setting the table, folding laundry…whatever. It is what you make of it. (I walked down the aisle to this song, by the way. At least, I think I did. I remember tracking down contact information for the artists and excitedly receiving the sheet music to give to our wedding band. Sixteen years later, though, my memory is fuzzy about that whirlwind day and I think I may have walked down to a tune from Song of Songs. I should ask my psychologist husband what he thinks this means. Hey, at least I remember my anniversary date.) If you’d like to bring this playlist full-circle and end on a more grand orchestral scale, check out this version of the song instead.

Wishing a happy and harmonious Chanukah to one and all!  Or is it Hannuka?  Or Hanukkah?  Hmmm…how DO you spell Channukkahh?

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  1. As promised, here are the Hebrew lyrics that I wrote for “Ocho Kandelikas” in December 2012.

    חג האורים, הנה זה בא
    הבה נדליק חנוכיה
    חג האורים, הנה זה בא
    הבה נדליק חנוכיה
    אווווו…
    נר ראשון תדליקו
    נר שני תדליקו
    נר שלישי תדליקו
    רביעי תדליקו
    חמישי תדליקו
    נר שישי תדליקו
    נר שביעי תדליקו
    כן, שמונה נרות נדליק

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