Saturday, November 19, 2011

You have to be as Fit as a Fiddle for this Hanukkah custom

Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell, step aside. Come Hanukkah, you'll be playing second fiddle to the Rebbe of the Premishlan Hasidic court in B'nei Brak, Israel. Once the candles are lit and the familiar Hanukkah songs of Hanerot Halalu and Maoz Tzur are sung, he will dance by himself in front of his Hasidim in an increasingly frenzied whirl while his followers enthusiastically sing. Despite the frantic pace of his dance steps he won't collapse. To the contrary. He will prove that he is as fit as a fiddle by picking up his violin and transforming himself into the court musician.  It's the moment everyone waits for and it's a Hanukkah custom dating back a couple of centuries to the Nadvorna Hassidim of Ukraine.

I can understand the frenzied whirl. It parallels the fast spins of the dreidel. But playing a violin? According to Bar-Ilan University professor, Menachem Friedman, an expert on ultra-orthodox society, Hanukkah is a time for lighthearted behavior. No work is permitted while the candles are lit, but the time has to be filled with some type of content that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees. Music is synonymous with many Hassidic sects and the violin is their favorite musical instrument. Why the violin? Maybe because it's portable and as close as they can get to King David's harp. Whatever the reason, playing it on Hanukkah is a custom that strikes the right chord.

While we're talking about notes and chords, enjoy the Maccabeats version of the Hanukkah story.  Compare the classic dreidel song with this contemporary version.  Or, open the piano, get out the violins and start creating your own Hanukkah musical. Make it a class custom that you do every year.

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