I met Shoshana in Sept 2019 online. She wrote me an email notifying me that there was a mistake in the email that I had just sent. I felt this was deeply supportive and helpful and we started writing back and forth over email.
Currently in Guatemala writing poetry on bus rides
Shoshana is currently attending language immersion school in Guatemala, then backpacking through South America through the winter. She has spent the past two years living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but left in early November to begin her travels. While on the road, she is focusing on language acquisition, developing her writing practice, and perfecting the art of writing poetry on long, rickety bus rides.
Her published work includes poetry, short fiction, personal essays, and several exploratory pieces inspired by the Jewish calendar. Shoshana is a passionate cook and aspiring craftsperson, and often has several homesteading projects in the works, including cheesemaking, bread-baking, pickling, candle-making and hand-building ceramics. She is active as a community organizer around prison abolition and immigration injustice in the U.S., and draws inspiration for her social justice work from Jewish history and values.
What mood are you building with this playlist?
The songs in this playlist reflect the themes of Hanukkah that speak to me most clearly—loss paired with hope, newness emerging from echoes of tradition, freedom contrasted with entrapment, and a search for home, whether spiritual, familial, or cultural. I drew from an international mix of artists to convey the universality of these themes and their resonance in Hanukkah celebrations around the world. Although many of the artists on this playlist are Jewish, my song selection was based on emotional impact. I chose songs that elicited strong emotions—hope, longing, anxiety, nostalgia—in their lyrics, soundscapes and rhythms.
This mix is what I think of as a “latke-grating” playlist—thoughtful enough to distract from the monotony of grating, but varied enough to keep up your energy as potatoes transform into a mass of shreds, ready for frying.
Explanation: Israeli sisters A-WA use repetitive chants and electronic beats to tell the story of their Yemenite great-grandmother, who fled violence in her home country and immigrated to Israel in 1949. The song crosses sensory lyrics in its chorus, “Fig and pomegranate, date and home / land of wheat and barley, grape and olive,” with a cry of fear for the future, “Where will I stake a home? (You have a tent for now) / Or at least a small shack (along with four other families).”The Hanukkah story asks questions about assimilation and belonging—do we have to assimilate in order to achieve safety? If we do not assimilate, how can we build a safe home for ourselves in places in which we are seen as strangers? “Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman” speaks to these questions, posing a parallel set of longings in its later verses,“And here I will raise a family (Don’t let them take your daughter)…And I will learn the language (Lose the accent).” The tone of the lyrics is understandably mixed—uneasy, anxious, but flickering with hope, “With time I’ll feel like I belong (Here is not Yemen).”
Explanation: The slow flow of “River” by Lisa-Kaindé Díaz and Naomi Díaz, the French-Cuban twins that make up Ibeyi, churns out new meaning each time I listen to it. Though the song was released nearly five years ago, when I listened to it this fall, I thought about the writings by Rabbi Toba Spitzer on using “water” as a metaphor for the Divine. The lyrics, in English and Yoruba, describe a seemingly sacred act: “I will come to your river / wash my soul.” This song makes me think about God as a river—steady and rhythmic, washing “ego and blame” far away, and bringing about necessary spiritual change. Although fire is the element most commonly associated with Hanukkah, water holds a complementary place. Without water we cannot control the power of hot oil and flames; without fire, we cannot find our way in the dark.
Explanation: Though this song might seem unexpected on a Hanukkah playlist, there are deep parallels in the destruction of an earthquake and the desecration of the temple in the Hanukkah story. Cass Elliot, the Russian-Jewish singer best known for being a member of The Mamas & the Papas, released “California Earthquake” in 1968, on her solo album “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” The nervous anticipation of the lyrics about the possibility of an earthquake, “So that may be, that may be / what’s gonna happen, gonna happen to me,” is somehow made giddy by horns and excited drum beats. The song pits its exuberant sound against the imminent violence caused by the earthquake, “Atlantis will rise, sunset Boulevard will fall / Where the beach use to be won’t be nothin’ at all.” The juxtaposition of bright sound and lyrical anxiety are a reminder that destruction is not only one thing. Loss sometimes seems inevitable, a “fault line” repeated through history. But “California Earthquake” reminds us that possibility for new life and rebuilding can emerge, through horn melodies and the graceful contralto voice of Mama Cass.
Explanation: “Boee (Come to Me)” is featured on the self-titled first album of Israeli musician Idan Raichel, well-known for his fusion of electronics, traditional Hebrew texts, and Ethiopian music. I chose this song because I love the way it trusts in the unknown, and invites the listener to trust, too. The majority of the lyrics are threaded with ambivalence, “Don’t ask me when / Don’t ask me about home / Don’t ask from me for time.” This uncertainty is not uncaring. Rather, it intimates trust in its listeners, heightened by the half-whispered, half-sung verses. Faith is embedded within the song, “Don’t you ask me about happiness / Maybe it will come, and when it will come / It will fall on us like rain.” But this faith is unusual—it rests on uncertainty, rather than assuredness. It is a faith in the unknown and unknowable, and the inevitable movement of time, “Time does not wait, nor stop or remain.”
Explanation: This song, performed by American singer-songwriter Ben Harper and his mother, Ellen, is the most personal selection for this playlist. The song embodies the concept of “home” to me—a place of celebration and joy, “even when there’s ghosts.” When I listen to “A House is a Home” I am reminded of my family, the light guitar and harmonizing voices of a parent and child. I love the calm resonance of “And if the life that you live is not the life you choose / Make your child a home and start anew.” It feels like a perfect accompaniment to thinking about how I want to craft my Jewish adulthood, and determine what practices are important to my Jewish identity. To me, Hanukkah always awakens memories of childhood, but over the past few years, it has also offered me the chance to create a new “home” with friends as we gather to celebrate together.
Explanation: “Eet” may sound like a made-up word to listeners, but Russian-Jewish singer Regina Spektor intentionally fills her 2009 song with its weird, drawn-out sound. “Eet” refers to the backspace key on a classic typewriter, which allows one to type over a letter to correct a typo. Spektor uses “Eet” to reckon with the past, as she reflects on her memories and professes her desire for earlier years, “You spent half of your life trying to fall behind / You’re using your headphones to drown out your mind / It was so easy and the words so sweet / You can’t remember.” With every chorus comes the resounding “eet, eet, eet, eet / eet, eet, eet, eet” repeated over and over like a wish for revision, or, in connection to the Hanukkah story, a longing for earlier, safer days. “Eet” acknowledges that the past cannot simply be retyped. The imprint of it will remain, no matter how many times you press the key.
Explanation: Beloved indie rock band The Silver Jews capture contradictions between containment and the promises of freedom in “The Wild Kindness.” It’s an evenly-paced, dreamy song with lyrics that border on cryptic. “The Wild Kindness” is filled with metaphors that evoke the “if a tree falls in a forest” thought experiment, offering new questions about the commonly understood morals of the Hanukkah story. The lyric, “Grass grows in an icebox” is deceptively short. It actually asks of its listener a set of probing questions: are we really growing if we are contained in unnatural spaces? If we are not growing freely, are we growing at all? Containment is echoed again in the lyric, “Behind the walls of medication I’m free.” Clearly, this “freedom” is false, just like the grass growing in the icebox, with no room to expand. Several lyrics in the first verse dig even deeper, “Some power that hardly looked like power / said I’m only perfect in an empty room.” These two lines are rich with difficult questions: are we safer in isolation? Are we able to achieve “perfection” in our communities if we without neighbors? Freedom, perfection, growth—all seem to come at the price of isolation. It’s a thought-provoking set of questions, especially when thinking about the struggles of the Hanukkah story. To assimilate, or to fight? To hide, or to boldly live our faith?
Explanation: Following the thoughtfulness of “A Wild Kindness,” I wanted to end this playlist on a note of daring jubilation and anticipation. “Falling” by pop-rock sisters HAIM, made up of Este, Danielle, and Alana, seemed to convey just that. Yes, the lyrics border on cheesy optimism, “And I’ll never look back, just hold your head up / And if it gets rough, it’s time to get rough.” But the experience of listening to this song feels true to its title—with each verse, you drop beat by beat into the swift rhythms; with each chorus, you descend into the ringing repetition of “falling.” When the song reaches its final echo, you find yourself energized and grounded, ready to fry some latkes and experience the joyful chaos of cooking in hot oil.