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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Chanukah Here and There

December 28, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

Growing up in a Reform synagogue, one of the best known Chanukah songs we sang was:

Who can retell the things that befell us/ Who can count them? In every age a hero or sage/ Came to our aid?
Later, I learned that this song was translated by the venerable Jewish educator Ben Edidin from a Hebrew original, the literal translation of which goes like this:
Who can tell the mighty acts of Israel/ Who can count them? In every generation a hero will arise/ Who will redeem the people.
It took me a while longer to understand what had been "lost" in translation. There is, I think, a pretty big difference between remembering "the things that befell us" and remembering "the mighty acts of Israel." The former suggests that we are passive recipients of what history deals us; the latter focuses on our heroic behavior in shaping our history and bringing about our own redemption. Note too that the English version allows that we might sometimes be aided by "sages," not only heroes -- while the Hebrew original leaves the rabbis out of the picture. To me it seems pretty clear that the translation represents an attempt to take some of the Zionist sting out of the song and make it more comfortable for American Jewish children, more religious and less defiantly humanistic. The Hebrew song was written by Menashe Ravina, a musician and music critic who immigrated to Palestine from the Ukraine in 1924. Ravina and a number of colleagues of similar background wrote hundreds of songs on the holidays, the landscape of Israel, and the Bible, creating from scratch a whole body of "folk music" that became a core element of Israeli culture. It turns out that the Hebrew song was based on a biblical verse, Psalm 106:2:
Who can tell the mighty acts of the Lord/ Proclaim all His praises?
?which continues in verses 6-7:
We have sinned like our forefathers;/ We have gone astray, done evil.
Our forefathers in Egypt did not perceive Your wonders;/ They did not remember Your abundant love,/ But rebelled at the sea, at the Sea of Reeds.
Thus, the modern Israeli "folk song" is actually a take-off on a verse in Psalms, and it exactly reverses the meaning of the original text: instead of an expression of faith in God's providence -- and remorse for having rejected Him in the past -- the song claims human credit for the heroic redemption of Israel, rejecting any Divine responsibility. This one line, this play on a well known biblical text (one which is often included in the Birkat HaMazon on Shabbat, and is quoted in the hymn "An'im Zemirot" sung at the end of the Shabbat morning service) beautifully articulates the whole cultural struggle of the Zionist revolution -- between secular, humanistic Zionism (i.e., we redeem ourselves, now) and traditional religious Judaism (i.e., God will redeem us, when He is ready).

Chanukah has an interesting history as a holiday, as it developed from a belated celebration of Sukkot decreed by the Maccabees (see II Maccabees 10) to a celebration of the miracle of the oil according to the rabbis of the Talmud (see Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b). It is fascinating to see how the development has continued even through the 20th century, as secular Zionist -- and American liberal -- Jewish educators have pushed and pulled Chanukah to fit their ideological needs.


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