Thursday, December 6, 2007

Channukah Day 3: Peter Yarrow's controversial "Don't Let the Lights Go Out"

Once you get past "Sevivon, Sov Sov Sov," "I have a little dreidel" and "Maoz Tzur", there aren't a lot of great Channukah songs. All sorts of folks have stepped up to fill the void, usually with earnest but forgettable results. One song, Peter Yarrow's "Don't Let the Lights Go Out," became an immediate, if a bit controversial, hit. First performed "as part of the 1982 Peter, Paul and Mary Hanukkah/ Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall with the N.Y. Choral Society," the song ask us to
"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"
On the positive side, the lyrics connect one of the central images Channukah (the menorah) with one of the central themes of the holiday (freedom) in a moving way. The song reminds us that while the event of Channukah happened along time ago, the situation of Channukah (loss of freedom) happens daily and that observance of Channukah ritual in the home should be matched with action to encourage freedom in the world. This as as elegant a Tikun Olam statement as I've heard in a pop song.

On the negative side, (and I've heard this in more places than the "Yourish blog" post but I'm having trouble finding other references at the moment) the song uses a Jewish holiday solely as the anchor for secular social action. In other words, where are the Jews in the song? Where is the Judaism? As a writer, I've claimed the song has a connection to Tikun Olam, but the song doesn't make that commitment. I've claimed that the song says that Channukah ritual should be matched with action. The song really just stays to do social action and can be read as preferring that over observance of ritual.

It's one of those perplexing questions...does the song bring a strong Jewish belief (Tikun Olam) to the secular / Christian United States or is it just appropriating Jewish images to support a secular political movement (the social justice movement). Personally, I love the song and am willing to make assumptions in its favor. What do you think?

CAJE 32 - Peter Yarrow - Don't Let the Lights Go Out


By the way, this performance is the third video I've posted from the annual CAJE (Coalition on for the Advancement of Jewish Education) conference. It must have been quite a party.

Related Posts: "Chanukah Day 2: Sam Glaser performs "I Remember Judah Macabee," CAJE Idol: Mark Samowitz & L'dor V'dor & Eight Nights, Eight Lights: the latest from Billy Ray Sheet

3 comments:

Ben Bresky said...
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Ben Bresky said...

No one ever said that the song is necessarily Jewish. Peter Paul and Mary are not rabbis. If they claimed it to be a Jewish song, then I could see it being controversial, but they are like many performers of Jewish ethnicity who just so happen to throw in some Jewish references to a non-Jewish song. But I like your attitude that you choose the positive slant. And I guess this is an discussion that could go on forever.

Anonymous said...

It's a song. Not an anthem or a manifesto. Leave it be and enjoy the music.