Di khanike likht, the well-known poignant poem by Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923) about the Hanukka lights—and their evocation of lament over lost Jewish sovereignty and the ensuing centuries of persecution and suffering—has served as the lyrics for many folksong versions as well as art and quasi-art songs and choral settings.
Sometimes called “the poet of the sweatshop,” Rosenfeld was one of the most important Yiddish poets in America during the early decades of eastern European immigration. A pioneering force for Yiddish poetry in the United States and a leading poet of the labor movement, he was born in Bolkshein, Russian Poland, but spent his youth in Warsaw and emigrated to New York in 1886. His poems became popular as songs sung by shop and factory workers and at mass protest rallies. His fame as a socialist poet spread back eastward to Europe, so that many of the poems he wrote in America became attached to European folk melodies and gained popularity there.
Rosenfeld also became attracted to the emerging Jewish national consciousness, and that side of his orientation is evident in this Hanukka poem, with its collective nostalgia for ancient nationhood, defensive military might, and valor. As lyrics, these lines are a marked departure from typical secular American Hanukka songs, where national aspirations, if present at all, are clothed in the acontext of the victorious Maccabean struggle for religious—not necessarily political—freedom.
Leo Low’s Likhtelekh and Zavel Zilberts’s Di khanike likht set to Rosenfeld’s poem have both enjoyed popularity. Zilberts’s setting is sung in its original version for voice and piano.
Sung in Yiddish
Words: Morris Rosenfeld
Oh, you little candles
You tell stories
Tales on end;
You tell of struggle,
Valor and courage, of
A wondrous past.
When I see you flickering,
A sparkling reverie arises.
An old dream speaks:
“Jew, you warred once;
Jew, you were once victorious.”
God! It seems unbelievable now!...
God! I can hardly believe it!...
Oh, you little lights!
Awaken my pain;
It stirs something deep within my heart,
And with tears it asks:
“What will be now?...”
*There are six additional stanzas in the poem.
Performers: Abba Bogin, Piano; Benzion Miller, Tenor
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin / Moshe Zeilingold
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