Songs of the Season ~ Ocho Kandelikas

Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after an unexpected Maccabeean victory over the Seleucid empire in the second century BCE; the word itself, ‘Hanukkah,’ is rooted in the Hebrew word for dedication.

Observed for eight nights and days, the holiday begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev; being a movable feast, it can occur any time between late November and late December. This year, it happens to begin on the first day of the Christian season of Advent: November 28.

After recapturing Jerusalem from the Syrians, a first priority for the Maccabees, a family dynasty that brought about a restoration of Jewish familial, religious, and political life in the wake of centuries of imperial occupation, was the rededication of their desecrated Temple.

Essential to the rededication was the lighting of the menorah, but only one container of usable oil was found. Despite the limited supply of oil, and despite expectations that it could last for only one night, tradition says the menorah continued to burn for eight days and eight nights until more oil could be produced; that miraculous sign of God’s presence and favor lies at the heart of Hanukkah celebrations.

Menorahs still contain the same seven candleholders used in the ancient temple, but the hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah, has nine candlesticks: one for each night of Hanukkah, and a shamash — a ‘helper’ or ‘servant’ candle — to light the others.

Many traditions associated with Hanukkah — the spinning tops called dreidels; the exchange of foil-wrapped chocolate gelt; those yummy potato latkes — are familiar enough, but one of the most beloved ‘songs of the season’ is quite recent. Written by Jewish-American composer Flory Jagoda in 1983, “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”) celebrates the holiday in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language mixing elements of Old Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish, and other languages of the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century.

Bosnian-born, Jagoda brought the traditional Ladino ballads and songs of her Sephardic ancestors to American audiences. From the Spanish Inquisition until World War II, Ladino was spoken by thousands of Jews throughout the Mediterranean. Today, it’s spoken primarily in Israel and in Istanbul, home to a prominent Ladino-speaking community and a Ladino newspaper called El Amaneser (The Dawn). Generally, however, Ladino has not been passed on to  younger generations; thanks in part to Flory Jagoda, interest is reviving.

In her latter years, Jagoda convened what she calledVijitas de Alhad, or ‘Sunday visits’ — weekly celebrations of Sephardic stories, songs and cuisine. Participants often included immigrants from Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey; they met in homes and sang in Ladino.

“I write Sephardic songs to continue my family tradition,” Jagoda told the Washington Post in 2002. “During the war, 42 people in my family were all thrown into a mass grave. In their memory, I write songs about them, about holidays, and about the legend of the key, the key they carried from Spain.”

The legend Jagoda mentions suggests that when the Sephardim left Spain they carried their house keys with them, passing them down through the generations. Even today, Sephardic homes may have ancient-looking keys hanging on the wall. “For us,” Jagoda said, “these keys represent a way to unlock the door to a world that has all but vanished, but is not forgotten.”

Flory Jagoda died in January of this year, but she certainly won’t be forgotten. “Ocho Kandelikas” has become as beloved as the woman herself, and it’s delightful to watch her own performance of the song. [Lyrics and translation follow the video.]

Chanukah linda sta aki, ocho kandelas para mi
Chanukah linda sta aki, ocho kandelas para mi
Oh ~ Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi
Muchas fiestas vo fazer, kon alegriyas y plazer
Muchas fiestas vo fazer, kon alegriyas y plazer
Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi
Los pastelikos vo kumer, kon almendrikas y la myel
Los pastelikos vo kumer, kon almendrikas y la myel
Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi
Beautiful Chanukah is now here, And eight candles for me appear.
Lots of parties for my leisure, So much fun and so much pleasure.
Dainty pastries for me to eat, With almonds and honey so sweet.
Oh – one little, two little, three little, four little candles;
Five, six, seven little candles, eight little candles for me.

Covers of the song have multiplied, sometimes in surprising ways. This version by the Music Talks ensemble has the sound of the Klezmer music initially associated with the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

An important mitzvah, or sacred commandment, of Hanukkah is pirsum hanes: a public proclamation of the miraculous events that transpired in the days of the Maccabees. Sometimes that means lighting the hanukkiah at sundown and placing it in a window where passers-by are able to see it. Sometimes it means helping to promote public lighting ceremonies, and sometimes it means taking Flory Jagoda’s little children’s song to a somewhat unexpected venue, with a full ensemble and the Senior Cantor for Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon in a knock-out of a black dress. Enjoy!

Comments always are welcome.

Giving Thanks for “Yes”

One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching. Where crowds, lines, and captive children are the norm, amusement abounds.

During a pre-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line. The boy appeared to be three or four years old, and he was fussy. Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around until he found safety, tucked between her body and the cart. Looking past us to displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something and tugged on her skirt to gain attention. Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him — a mistake she would come to regret.

The boy continued to demand her attention, until ‘fussy’ transformed itself into ‘cantankerous.’ and he began to wail with rage and frustration. He was tired. He wanted to go home, and he certainly didn’t want to wait while his mother sorted through coupons. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed mother tried her best to reason with him.

“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked. No, he did not want to ride in the cart. “Do you want to look at your book?” No, he did not. “Do you want me to spank you?” He certainly didn’t want that. “Do you want to go to your room when we get home?” That wasn’t acceptable, either.

In desperation, his mother looked at her overflowing grocery cart. “Do you want a cookie?” “No!'” he shouted. Startled by the unexpected response, she asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?”  At that point, the boy began to wail and his perplexed mother tried again. “Do you know what I just asked you?” This time, there was no reply; the unhappy child only re-buried his tearful face into her skirt, muffling the sound of his refusals.

Those of us watching were as amused as his mother was uncomfortable and embarassed, but all of us — mother and onlookers alike — seemed astonished by the intensity of the child’s “No!” Caught up in the perverse pleasure of opposition, his refusals had become more important to him than a cookie.

Unfortunately, the instinctive response of that child has become the habit of too many adults. Nay-sayers abound. Petulant, obnoxious, pessimistic, and filled with cynicism, their entire raison dêtre appears to be shouting No! into the face of life. Offered the hand of friendship, the challenges of collegiality, or the possibility of intimacy, they respond by clinging ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture; every gesture of conciliation; every offer of hope.

Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level. When whole groups begin saying No to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear erodes acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, a hunger for power. From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to the halls of academia, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting “No!” to those who dare confront or care for them: an army of aging children possessing adult strength and power: children whose negativity is capable of killing or reshaping lives without regard for consequence.

Recognizing the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I’ve come to depend on the folly of hope: a willingness to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity remains good at heart, that joy is possible, and that, however broken trust may be, it still can be rebuilt. To paraphrase the famous words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I chose to believe humanity not only will endure the shouts of “no” we call history, but that it will prevail over that history by the “yes” of courageous human hearts.

Is such hope naive? Has faith in humanity become outdated? Have the cruelty, ridicule, and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and acceptance irrelevant? Faced with such questions, I find myself once again aligned with a poet of my roots. Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knew the people; he knew the power of grace; and he knew the people’s “Yes.”

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”…
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
“Where to? what next?”

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle ~ Quiscalus mexicanus

Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-Tailed Grackles appear across Texas, their populations ebbing and flowing as the seasons change. Chattering among themselves, providing amusement to humans during mating competitions, and generally showing off to one another, they’re exceedingly social birds. 

In fall and winter, enormous flocks of Great-Tailed Grackles gather in ‘roost trees’ that sometimes contain thousands of birds; their morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.

Other birds, especially Purple Martins, often create the same effect. In Houston, there are locations where the various birds’ morning routines are so well known that people click on the radar just to watch and record. (For a beautiful animated .gif of a Houston roost ring, click here.)

Great-tailed Grackles don’t limit themselves to trees, of course. They’ll also fill electrical lines in the early evening or, in the case of my neighborhood, take over our local HEB grocery store. When the birds move in, there’s nothing to be done but laugh. They line the store’s rooftop and perch atop cart returns, but they also wander under and over cars, sit on SUV luggage racks, ride on grocery carts being pushed by bemused shoppers, and search through the outside garden displays for the occasional insect.

Poet Susan Elizabeth Howe has perfectly described their behavior and captured something of their mysterious appeal in her poem titled, “What Is a Grackle?” I don’t think she visited my supermarket while writing it, but she certainly could have.

A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.


Comments always are welcome.

Where, Oh Where, Has That Little Muse Gone?

It was bound to happen. While browsing a few blogs that hadn’t been updated in months, I discovered one writer I’ve always enjoyed offering an intriguing reason for his absence. “The pandemic got my Muse,” he wrote. “She’s been quarantined.”

Presumably his Muse’s isolation has ended by now, but more than a few writers and other creative sorts continue to grumble about a lack of inspiration. Isolation, an inability to travel, generalized if mysterious ennui, and simple exhaustion all have been mentioned as reasons for blank pages or screens.

As far as I know, none of the Muses have landed in the cemetery I found in Muse, Oklahoma, but when mine disappears, I know where she’s gone: to Poughkeepsie. I can’t say I blame her. From what I’ve seen of New York’s Hudson River Valley, it’s a beautiful area, and if it isn’t as romantic as Paris, France (or Paris, Texas for that matter) at least it’s not Glenrio.

Eventually, of course, she always returns. William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, has experienced both the departure and the return of his own Muse; his report of the experience is filled with astonishment and touched by the same wisdom contained in Georgia O’Keeffe’s oft-quoted aphorism: “Take time to look.”

Stafford’s “When I Met My Muse,” a wonderful poem for any season, seems particularly relevant now. Most interesting, of course, is its suggestion that our Muses only are traveling because of our reluctance to invite them in. Perhaps it’s time to open the door.

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

Comments always are welcome.

Too Many Tricks, and The Wrong Kind of Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties galore skulking along the edge of consciousness, and with every horror movie classic — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

In parts of the country where offense isn’t so easily taken, children delight in dressing up as princesses, cowboys, or Cruella de Vil.  Meanwhile, for the faux vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable night-creatures who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil, corn syrup blood is dripping, and the body parts are piling up

There’s no question that Halloween has gone commercial. From our neighborhood haunted house to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone hopes to take a bite out of the consumer. Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes for a perfect holiday.

In this season dedicated to thinning the veil between life and death, one of the most unlikely purveyors of horror is the American poet, Carl Sandburg.

Sandburg isn’t much in favor these days. He’s too common, and too plain-spoken. In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary; today, he might well be censored, cancelled, or de-platformed.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged the value of the workers and builders, families, and business people who knit this country together, and he honored them with his work.

After decades of allowing his poetry to fade from memory, I began thinking of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike. Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the introduction to his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind seemed relevant. ‘Yesterday’ was gone indeed, along with much of Bolivar Penninsula, a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast. “What of it?” asked the woman Sandburg named Tomorrow. “Let the dead be dead.” Today, different storms wrack our society, and different forces are attempting to dismember the body politic, but Tomorrow’s question still echoes: “What of it?”

When I compare Sandburg and Faulkner on the nature of humanity, Faulkner often wins. Despite the nature of some of his novels’ characters, his eloquent Nobel Prize acceptance speech inspires and elevates; Sandburg too often seems bleak; resigned; dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life. When Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone somehow seems more realistic — optimistic, even — than Sandburg’s. But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth that seems particularly relevant today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged through our national life, I’ve wondered if Sandburg ever imagined his beloved country would transform itself in this way. And yet his words are chilling and prescient: as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries, Sandburg should speak to us today. Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres, and the living dead prowl their haunted houses. Let the role players mask their intent and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of the fear-mongers’ tricks, and I don’t need the treats they pretend to offer. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare to face and battle our own unnerving horrors.

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind
Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
and paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
…and the only listeners left now
are…the rats…and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.


Comments always are welcome.