Today was my religious school’s Chanukah celebrations. We sang Chanukah songs in shirah (music) and t’fila (prayer), the classes had their Chanukah parties, and Young Judea held a Hanukkah Hop for the children of the Richmond-area schools.
One of the songs we sang is Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” a song which I loved from the moment I first heard it, and which I thought all this time was a song about Chanukah, and about the Jewish fight for existence. But today, as I was singing the song with the students, I finally actually read the lyrics. And I discovered something about “Light One Candle.” It isn’t about the success of Jews over persecution and oppression. It isn’t about fighting for our existence as a people. It isn’t about keeping the light of Judaism going. It isn’t even about the Menorah.
It’s a song about social justice. It has become an anthem of such in some circles, apparently. And on Yarrow’s own website, the meaning is clear: It’s not about Judaism.
Written by Peter Yarrow, “Light One Candle” was first presented as part of the 1982 Peter, Paul and Mary Hanukkah/ Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall with the N.Y. Choral Society. Later, performances throughout theU.S., Europe and particularly Israel, brought a new and universal meaning to the song.
“Light One Candle” was written, and is sung, for Jews and non-Jews alike. The flame is an historical reminder of an ethical imperative. It burns as a burden, demanding sacrifice and struggle. But it also lights the possibility, the privilege and promise of a better world. We must not let the light go out.
Nowhere in there is a message about the struggle of the Jews to keep their religion alive under oppression and the intent to destroy it. Instead, it’s “for Jews and non-Jews alike.” Ethics. Social justice. Sacrifice and struggle, yes, but not for your religion. For your conscience.
Many issues have moved Peter Yarrow to give often of his time and talent over the years: hunger, homelessness, the nuclear threat, education, equal rights. All have tapped his skills as both a performer and organizer. Throughout, he has used his music as advocacy. One can hear that in songs like “Light One Candle,” which has become an anthem for the Jewish ethical legacy; Judaismâ€™s commitment to a better world.
Once again, we have the ethical side of the Jewish equation, and yet, nothing regarding the religion itself–which is the reason for Jewish ethics, I might point out. Judaism’s commitment to Judaism? How quaint. This is the new era, dammit, where the only religion is social justice.
I wonder if Peter Yarrow even remembers why Jews are required to be ethical in this life, rather than simply asking for forgiveness at the end so you can jump on into the next one. (Here’s a hint: It’s in something called the Torah.)
I don’t believe I’ll be purchasing that CD after all.