Music and lyrics

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; Judaism’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.

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15 Responses to Music and lyrics

  1. Ben F says:

    Don’t let the light go out!

  2. Lil Mamzer says:

    Yes, the “Light One Candle” song. It is the anthem of the whacked-out leftist congregation where my kids are currently being Hebrew-schooled. Remember, the one whose rabbi invited Pacifica’s Amy Goodman to deliver the Yom Kippur address?

    You have hit the nail on the head. The only religion among these people is ‘social justice’. Don’t ask me “Whose social justice?” – don’t wanna go there anymore.

  3. Ben F says:

    Sounds a bit like the current brouhaha over the Disney movie based on the first Narnia book. The Christian themes are there if you care to see them, but the tale also holds up well on its own. C.S. Lewis consciously wrote the books for all to enjoy, while never denying the Christian inspiration.

    From what I gather, the film, like the book, does not overtly proselytize. Yet Christians aren’t boycotting the film. Why should they?

  4. Sabba Hillel says:

    That is similar to the way some people have attempted to reframe Chanukah as a fight for religious tolerance rather than a fight for the ability to follow our religion completely. These are the same people whose religious beliefs track completely with the current liberal agenda and change as that agenda changes.

  5. Ben, the subject is not the Narnia film. The subject is a song that purports to be a Chanukah song when, in fact, it is not even about Chanukah, and moreover, wasn’t even written only with Jews in mind.

    Let us look at the first verse:

    Light one candle for the Maccabee children
    With thanks that their light didn’t die
    Light one candle for the pain they endured
    When their right to exist was denied
    Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
    Justice and freedom demand
    But light one candle for the wisdom to know
    When the peacemaker’s time is at hand

    “Justice and freedom”? Um. Chanukah was about religious persecution and oppression. Jews were being forced into renouncing their religion and taking on someone else’s. If you can find the word “Jew” or “religion” anywhere in these lyrics, I’ll give you a dollar.

    I will argue that “the Maccabee children” is a phrase substituted for “Jews.” The light that didn’t die isn’t the Menorah, it’s the light of “freedom and justice.” Oh, and knowing when it’s time to make peace. Because, you know, war is bad.

    And let me get this straight: My choice not to buy this CD is “boycotting” it? Funny, I thought it was a choice. You know, a decision that I get to make, based on what I think and believe.

    Boycotting. Give me an effing break. I don’t buy Metallica CDs either, even though I like some of their songs, because others of their songs offend me. Am I boycotting them, too? Or making a choice based on my beliefs?


  6. Ben F says:

    “Chanukah was about religious persecution and oppression. Jews were being forced into renouncing their religion and taking on someone else’s.”

    According to the First Book of Macabees (which is in the Septuagint but not the Tanach), the revolt began when Mattathias slew A JEW who sought to offer a sacrifice upon the pagan altar at Modin. The text doesn’t say that the Jew was acting out of compulsion. Jews making offerings to alien gods is a constant theme throughout the Tanach. Even our matriarch Rachel could not bear to part with her household idols.

    The text in Macabees compares the zealotry of Mattathias to that of Pinchas in Num. 25. Our tradition takes a rather dim view of Pinchas. On the other hand, his example is cited by White supremacist skinheads who call themselves “Phineas Priests.”

    The Macabees were fighting not only for the freedom to practice their religion, but for the “freedom” to impose it upon their brethren, smiting sinful and wicked men and cicumcising every uncircumcised child that they encountered. The revolt ended with the unification of the priesthood and the monarchy, not something that is much acclaimed.

    The Rabbis were clearly troubled by the “Pinchas” aspects of the revolt. They emphasized the miracle of the temple oil, not the miracle of the victory.

    The meaning and message of Chanukah are, IMO, extremely difficult, especially in the context of galut Jews like you and me who live in a society that values “freedom of religion.” Freedom of religion is not easily squared with Biblical Judaism; ours is a jealous El who forbids us to serve the Elokim of others.

    I think you are being way too hard in your criticism of Mr. Yarrow and his song (which was released on a Chanukah and Christmas album, not a Chanukah only album). Yes, he does try to draw a “universal message” out of the Macabbean revolt. So do most of us. The universal message is surely a distortion. But I’d wager a healthy sum that you don’t teach your religious school students to emulate the “zealotry for the law” exhibited by Pinchas and Mattathias.

    The truth is that this holiday is rather hard to take straight. Somewhere between the translation of the Septuagint and the closing of the canon, our sages decided to omit 1 and 2 Macabees from the Tanach. It was, IMO, an important decision, and I think that Judaism is better for it. (These books aren’t included in Protestant Bibles either.)

  7. Once again, you are sidestepping the issue. Yarrow himself, in his own words, said the song is about social justice. Those two quotes from my post are from his pages, using his words.

    He says the song is about “the Jewish ethical legacy; Judaism’s commitment to a better world.”

    Still not seeing where religious oppression is mentioned in the song, and you can throw in as much about the intra-factional problems as you like, that still does not change the fact that Chanukah was about Antiochus’ attempts to eliminate Judaism. Not what the Books of the Maccabees are about; what Chanukah is about. Or are you trying to tell me that Antiochus didn’t try to stop Jews from practicing Judaism? That he didn’t slaughter the Jews and desecrate the Temple?

    The meaning of Chanukah has been very plainly passed down through the generations. Even the Rugrats got it.

    Where the song was released, and how many Christmas songs were on the album, is completely irrelevant.

    So far, you have accused me of boycotting it because I said I won’t buy it. You have yet to prove it is a Chanukah song, as opposed to a song about “Jewish ethics” and “social justice.” You are now arguing the interpretation of Chanukah and what I teach my students instead of responding to the points raised.

    Dance around the points all you like: I’m still not buying the CD, and that’s because it’s not a Chanukah song. It’s a paean to drunken, late-night college discussions.

    Been there, done that, and now I believe that war is necessary. The absence of war is not necessarily peace. Sometimes the absence of war is servitude.

  8. Ben F says:

    I don’t think I accused you of “boycotting it because I won’t buy it.” You’re trying to put words in my mouth. I was just contrasting the viewpoint that “Light One Candle” isn’t sufficiently Jewish with the thesis that the Narnia books aren’t sufficiently Christian.

    I’ve now looked at the lyrics to the song. The phrase “Light one candle” appears four times in the first two verses, and not at all in the refrain or the third verse. I count eight lit candles. Sounds like Chanukah to me.

    In the last verse, Yarrow asks “what is the memory?” and “what is the commitment?” His answer, in that verse, is “justice.” In the first two verses, the answer would seem to be peace.

    Yarrow certainly isn’t saying that the memory and the commitment are Torah. He’s no Mattathias, rallying those who are loyal to the covenant and the law. But we Jews are enjoined in the Torah to pursue justice, and a stress on covenant and law would have made the song EXCLUSIVELY Jewish, which Yarrow did not intend.

    I don’t see a problem.

    In the time of the Macabees, Antiochus desecrated the Temple, and we Jews went to war, won, rededicated the Temple, and restored the sacrificial cult.

    Today, revival of the sacrificial cult is prevented by some goyim who built their own structures on the Temple Mount and are occupying it, preventing Jews from praying there. I suppose that we have our work cut out for us, and if war is what it takes, then so be it. Gotta keep the faith.

    We don’t even need to write a song. We’ve already got one–Adir Hu.

    Bimhera v’yamenu, baby.

  9. LynnB says:

    Here’s the difference, Ben. The Narnia books don’t pretend to be Christian, even though they indisputably are. Yarrow’s song pretends to be Jewish, even though it quite obviously isn’t. You may be ok with having someone distort the meaning of Hanukah to make it come out as some sort of touchy feely celebration of peace and justice for all humankind, but surely you can respect the right of other Jews (like Meryl, like L’il Mamzer, like Sabba Hillel, like me) to not be ok with that.

  10. Time to recap.

    Me: Light One Candle is not a song about Chanukah. It’s a song about injustice and fighting for freedom.

    You: Narnia isn’t being boycotted for not being Christian enough.

    Me: Narnia? WTF? The song still isn’t about Chanukah. Not a word about religious persecution and oppression.

    You: That’s not what Chanukah is about. And the meaning of Chanukah is hard. How could Peter Yarrow get it when it’s so complex? And yeah, his song does have a general touchy-feely meaning, but you’re being too mean to him.

    Me: Once again, my point was that the song is not a Chanukah song. I said I won’t buy it, you say I’m boycotting it.

    You: I never said you’re boycotting it. You put words in my mouth, but I did use the word “boycott” in my first comment.

    The Torah talks about peace and justice, therefore, when Yarrow uses the words “peace” and “justice” he’s writing a Chanukah song. Blah blah blah, Temple, blah blah blah, sacrifice, blah blah blah, more Book of Maccabees. And look, he used the phrase “Light one candle” eight times, Menorah ergo sum! Or Menorah E.D.!

    And now, for my response to your last post: One more time: The song is not about Chanukah, your verbal gymnastics notwithstanding. You continue to raise issues that are, well, not what I raised in my post. You are now accusing me of wanting to bring back sacrificial Judaism after eliminating the palestinians. Way to ad hominem, dude.

    Keep on digging that hole, though, because I can use the practice debating.

    Well, no, not really. My debating skills are just fine. I said that to be nice.

  11. Ben F says:


    I accused you of wanting to bring back sacrificial Judaism after eliminating the palestinians? That’s rich, Meryl. Not what I’d call a sparkling display of debating skills. And you accused me of argumentum ad hominem?

    Besides which, I made reference to “goyim”; the Jews in Eretz Yisrael are “palestinians” in any legitimate sense of the word.

    But all the same, you should not be too quick to gloss over the meaning of Chanukah. The word means “dedication,” and the reference is to the reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem so that burnt offerings could resume.

    But enough of the parry and thrust; let’s try to find some common ground.

    The first line of Yarrow’s song is “Light one candle for the Macabee children.” Some might say that it must be a Chanukah song because of the word Macabee. I say it must be muddleheaded mush because “Macabee children” is an oxymoron.

    Judah took the name “Macabee,” and the fighters who joined him were the Macabees. The oppressed children weren’t “Macabee children.” The oppressed children were Jewish children, and they were oppressed irrespective of whether (or on which side) their fathers fought in that war.

    If the song is incoherent from the get-go, it can’t be about Chanukah.

    One can make a case for the song being about the “ethical legacy of Judaism.” But Chanukah is not, IMO, one of the richer veins for mining that legacy. You can’t get there from here.

  12. chsw10605 says:

    Was it Yarrow or Stookey who was convicted of statutory rape in MD and then pardoned by Carter?


  13. Ben:

    Today, revival of the sacrificial cult is prevented by some goyim who built their own structures on the Temple Mount and are occupying it, preventing Jews from praying there. I suppose that we have our work cut out for us, and if war is what it takes, then so be it. Gotta keep the faith.

    We don’t even need to write a song. We’ve already got one–Adir Hu.

    Bimhera v’yamenu, baby.

    Your words, baby. Not mine.

    Speaking of words, I quoted from Peter Yarrow–twice–regarding the meaning of the lyrics. I guess you know the meaning better than he does, though.

    chsw: Stookey. Google is your friend.

  14. Ben F says:


    Go back and re-read the Yarrow quotes. “The flame is an historical reminder of an ethical imperative.” Note the word “historical.” The song is rooted in an historical incident, specifically the Macabbean revolt, even though the song garbles the account.

    Note also the statement that later performances “brought a new and universal meaning to the song.” The implication is that the song’s ORIGINAL meaning was not universal.

    Were the lyrics revised after the song’s first performance to make the message more universal? Could be. I have no idea.

    But this might be more of a “deconstructionist” assertion, viewing the meaning as something external to the lyrics. The idea of evolving meaning of a fixed text is also suggested by Yarrow’s statement that the song “has become an anthem for the Jewish ethical legacy.” That, by the way, is a pretty clear statement that the song’s writer doesn’t control the song’s meaning.

    I read Yarrow as saying that this is a Chanukah song, albeit not a song that is just for Jews. YMMV, and obviously it does. I don’t think it’s a good Chanukah song either.

    But the Rugrats version of Chanukah doesn’t hit the mark either, IMO. (Neither does the Rugrats Passover episode, which is a work of pure genius, but keeps the focus on Moses, who isn’t even mentioned in the traditional Seder text. I see it as essentially a Christian take on Passover in which the Seder is transformed into a Bible story,) The Jews weren’t facing genocide in the Chanukah story (unlike, say, Purim or Pesach). They were facing an effort to suppress the practice of their religion. The Macabees were zealots that rose to the challenge by defeating both the foreign forces AND the assimilationist Jews, and unifying the monarchy and the priesthood. The Judaism that they fought to restore bears no resemblance to Yarrow’s, but neither does it much resemble our own.

    Which is why Chanukah IS NOT ABOUT THE MACABBEAN REVOLT. You are right that Yarrow fails to zero in on what the Macabees were fighting for, but Yarrow is in very good company. On Purim, we Jews read the Megillah. On Pesach, we hold a seder or two and tell a Moses-less and Aaron-less version of the Exodus story. On Chanukah, we DO NOT READ THE BOOKS OF MACABEES.

    Chanukah is about the rededication of the Temple. The Chanukah lights recall the temple miracle, not the Macabbean revolt. Look at the first verse of Maoz Tzur. Restore the Temple so that we can bring offerings of thanksgiving.

    But in both Adir Hu and Maoz Tzur, we don’t commit ourselves to rebuild the Temple. Heaven forfend. We petition God to do it. Our Judaism is not the Judaism of the Macabees. Yarrow may have a firmer grasp of that than you.

  15. Once again, I have a suggestion for you, Ben. Instead of going through this over and over again on those rare occasions when I choose to respond to you, why don’t you just number your comments, like in the old joke?

    1. Meryl, you’re wrong.
    2. Meryl, you’re REALLY wrong.
    3. Meryl, you are so wrong I’m wondering why you bothered to post this.

    I’m guessing if I did a quick tabulation of all your comments, over 90% of them would be a variant of the above three.

    Kinda makes me wonder why you bother reading my blog if you are so anxious to disagree with everything I write.

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