You might think of “Ma’oz Tzur” as a boring, kitschy Hanukkah song. You might pinch yourself after humming the melody by accident as it conjures memories of a children’s choir, or maybe of a lame cantor you know.
Allow me to attempt to change your mind.
“Ma’oz Tzur” exists in many forms. For one thing, it doesn’t have just one melody. It’s a piyyut, or Jewish liturgical poem, and like synagogue standards and fellow piyyutim “Adon Olam” or “L’Cha Dodi,” it can actually have any number of melodies or musical settings. If you’re an American Jew, the one you’ve most likely heard has its origins in a medieval German folk tune.
“Ma’oz Tzur” translates to “Rock of Ages,” and its verses describe God as the “rock” in question. According to the poem, despite a long history of Jewish hardship, the lasting love of God has been strong and durable.
This tasting platter of eight different renditions of “Ma’oz Tzur” — one for each night of Hanukkah — can hopefully remind us that while hardships abound, the diversity of Jewish creativity can give us joy and strength. If you like what you hear, please consider supporting these artists by purchasing their music. Streaming platforms don’t pay them enough for all the joy they bring.
Sunday, December 18th: Erran Baron Cohen, “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah”
While Erran Baron Cohen might be best known for the music he’s written for his brother Sacha on films like “Borat,” he’s an incredible musician in his own right — and he composed a killer Hanukkah album. In these two renditions in Hebrew and English, Baron Cohen tastefully flavors Ma’oz Tzur into pop earworms, certainly reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.”
As Baron Cohen states: “I remember from my childhood listening to Hanukkah songs at home and listening to these children singing slightly out of key and some wonky old piano player joining them to make a terrible record… the idea was to create a new concept in Jewish holiday music, something that everybody would enjoy listening to.”
Monday, December 19th: The “Invitation to Piyut” collection
As stated before, “Ma’oz Tzur” theoretically has countless renditions. Jews the world over know the poem and have bolstered it with their own melodies. The website An Invitation to Piyut has a database of piyyut renditions from Jewish communities around the world, and their YouTube channel features a handful of amazing renditions of “Ma’oz Tzur,” among many other piyyutim. Go forth and explore!
To get you started, here is one rendition from a 2010 Hanukkah concert in Israel which sets the piyyut to a kickin’ Moroccan melody, as performed by Rabbi Haim Biton, Maimon Cohen and Shimon Iluz, all accompanied by the Andalusalam Orchestra.
Tuesday, December 20th: Mark Rubin, “Hill Country Hanukkah”
Self-styled as the “Jew of Oklahoma,” multi-instrumentalist Mark Rubin has been a staple not only in the Klezmer Revival, but also in Southern Americana and folk music for more than 30 years. If you’re looking for music full of Jewish soul and southern twang, he’s your man.
Rubin’s eclectic cover of “Ma’oz Tzur” starts as he lays down a bouncy baseline. Vocalist Rabbi Neil Blumofe joins in, belting out blue notes, which, along with Ben Saffer’s clarinet evoking Jewish swing kings Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, help take the tune from bluegrass to blues.
Wednesday, December 21st: Voice of the Turtle, “Small Miracles”
Voice of the Turtle is a music ensemble that’s been dedicated to performing and promoting Sephardic Jewish music for over 30 years. Their name pokes fun at a mistranslation in the King James Bible’s Song of Songs, which referred to the “voice of a turtle” rather than a turtledove.
Released on vinyl in 1983, their rendition uses a melody that Italian baroque composer Benedetto Marcello heard and recorded from an Ashkenazi congregation in the Venetian Jewish community. Voice of the Turtle treats the melody with gorgeous delicacy using a variety of folk instruments from across the Sephardic world.
Thursday, December 22nd: Yale Strom’s Broken Consort, “Shimmering Lights”
Yale Strom is a multimedia Yiddishist polymath who’s had an incredible career as a performer, composer, filmmaker, writer and just about anything else you could imagine. On this album, Strom arranges Hanukkah songs for an all-star lineup of performers from different musical traditions around the world.
His arrangement of “Ma’oz Tzur” spans a breathtaking ten minutes as it blends various genres. As Strom’s liner notes state, “We wanted the repertoire to present a sense of how Khanike was and is celebrated by different cultures around the world.”
Friday, December 23rd: Do it yourself!
Hanukkah technically touches nine different calendar days, so whether it’s your practice or not, feel free to take a tech detox on Shabbat. You could hang around with friends or family and sing your favorite melody of “Ma’oz Tzur” — or even make one up if you want!
Saturday, December 24th: Deborah Katchko-Gray, “Hanukkah Songs of Light and Hope”
Deborah Katchko-Gray is a fourth-generation cantor and the founder of the Women Cantors Network. An incredible proponent of female cantors, she herself has been singing and releasing music for decades.
Her album features two renditions, both with Hebrew and English verses: a gorgeous one set to the Marcello melody and another one that sets the piyyut to the Scottish folk tune “The Water is Wide.” Both versions coax the listener with Katchko-Gray’s vocals, which successfully conjure up greats of the American folk revival like Joan Baez even while singing in Hebrew.
Sunday, December 25th: Leslie Odom Jr., “The Christmas Album”
The tradition of playing a token Hanukkah song in an otherwise Christmasy setlist is long-standing, but Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. vindicates the pattern just in time for Chrismukkah in this rendition featuring his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson, who was raised observing Christian and Jewish holidays.
The song is beautifully sentimental with the pair singing together. Only a piano accompanies in the background, playing with perfectly balanced jazzy intrigue. The keys never disrupt the couple’s gorgeous and perfect vocal harmonies, though there is a tasteful and soulful solo piano break between verses.
Monday, December 26th: Sarah Aroeste, “Hanuká!”
Sarah Aroeste is one of the world’s foremost advocates and musicians in Ladino song and Sephardic music. As her website states: “Aroeste is one of few Ladino composers today who writes her own music, and whether with her original compositions or with interpreting Ladino folk repertoire, she has developed a signature style combining traditional Mediterranean Sephardic sounds with contemporary influences such as rock, pop and jazz.”
Aroeste’s rendition uses the Marcello melody in a Ladino translation written by Israeli Ladino poet, Medi Koen-Malki. The splendidly-produced recording shows off Aroeste’s impressive diction and the clarity in her high range, as well as the incredible string playing of Yaniv Taichman who plays violin, oud and saz (a Turkish variety of lute) on the album.