Judaism and Jewish culture contain more than a few gems of wisdom. Often used as a rallying cry for social justice, Pirkei Avot tells us, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” On most Jewish holidays, we recount that “they tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
And now, courtesy of Baltimore-based Jewish musical duo Micah E. Wood and Ari Pluznik, Jews have this light-hearted revelation: The fourth night of Hanukkah is the Joseph Gordon-Levitt of holidays.
Seriously, just think about it.
This silly, yet absolutely true sentiment comes from Wood and Pluznik’s Hanukkah song, “4th Night of Hanukkah.” (To be more exact, the lyrics go “The fourth night ain’t that bad / It’s dramatic to call it sad / It’s cosmically simple, and a little mundane / It’s a Joseph Gordon-Levitt type day.”) Out on Friday, December 16th, the noise pop track expertly captures the ambiance of trying to rally through the rest of Hanukkah.
Fittingly, it’s the fourth Hanukkah track the pair have released over the last four years — they’ve put out a song around Hanukkah each year since 2019. These songs make up “A Hanukkah EP Part I,” which also dropped on Friday; they’re all equally head-bopping jams with creative themes. Track one, “Electric Menorah,” is an ode to the non-oil based hanukkiah which came out in 2019. Track two is a disco jam all about getting down called “Hanukkah Disco” (2020). “High on Hanukkah” from 2021, the third track, pairs klezmer clarinet with an alternative poppy sound to describe — you guessed it — getting high on Hanukkah.
But they’re not done yet. Over the next four years, Wood and Pluznik plan to release a new single each year to complete the second half of the EP, ultimately creating an album with a song for each night of Hanukkah.
Micah E. Wood and Ari Pluznik spoke to Hey Alma about the Baltimore Jewish music scene and their plan to write a single for each night of Hanukkah.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you tell me about your Jewish identities and backgrounds?
Ari Pluznik: I grew up Conservative Jewish in Columbia, Maryland – which has a decently sized, but probably relatively small Jewish population. But I grew up going to Hebrew school, I got bar mitzvahed and then I even got confirmed. I’m the only one of my brothers that had to go to Hebrew high school.
In college I got bogged down by some of the more fundamental aspects of Judaism, and I started stepping away a little bit. But within the last five years, I’ve been finding my own way back, especially to feeling very comfortable and proud of being culturally Jewish. And then I’ve also been studying a little more Kabbalah. I’m a meditation teacher, and I’ve been exploring that with the work of some Reconstructionist rabbis. For example, Reb Schachter-Shalomi was a cool voice who did a lot of cross-cultural work with Buddhist teachers and Sufis. So my Jewish identity is very alive for me right now, and it’s very nice.
Micah E. Wood: Ari and I bonded about this early on when we met, but I was raised Conservative Jewish, I was bar mitzvahed and I was confirmed too. I went to Jewish elementary school because my parents really wanted me to be around other Jewish people. It’s called Hebrew Academy of Tidewater in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and it’s where I learned firsthand about the hatred that some people have for Jews. It was the target of a lot of threats — it’s weird being in elementary school and realizing like, “Oh, we didn’t come to school today because someone burned a cross on our lawn,” or, like, “Oh, we have to go into lockdown or do lockdown practices because of another threat.”
I moved to public school for middle school and high school, and I wasn’t bullied for being Jewish as much as I was identified by it. You know, I had a “Jew-fro” and people would call me a Jew in a way that they thought was endearing. It was a different kind of antisemitism, you know? I was like, “Oh, they’re only calling me ‘Jew?’ That’s nice.” And then I moved to Baltimore where I haven’t really experienced much antisemitism. When I moved here for college, I kind of hid behind my red beard and my blondish hair and just accepted that I was white for a minute. And then I started to reconnect with my identity after realizing how important my culture is to me and realizing how great Judaism is, in the way that you don’t have to be super religious. I’ve gone to the same Reconstructionist synagogue that Ari has been to, and there’s also this great place in Baltimore called Hinenu. It’s very trans and queer, and it’s a super accepting and beautiful space – and it’s not just white Jews there, either. It’s a nice place to reconnect with your roots. So I try to do High Holidays there like once a year to redose my Judaism..
AP: And there’s also a place I’d love to mention called Pearlstone. They do Jewish education and summer camps, and they have a working farm, and it’s this really beautiful open Jewish space — both in terms of physical openness and in terms of like, anybody can come and learn and connect to Jewish values.
MW: Yeah. So, Ari’s like the hippie one, and I’m the pop star one.
AP: We just make it work somehow.
A dynamic duo! Why did you decide to make Hanukkah music, and what was the process of making this year’s single?
MW: Ari, and I worked at a nonprofit together. He was the community arts outreach person and I was the marketing person – which also goes right back to our hippie and pop star identities. But we bonded immediately over our Judaism and had been really close. We were setting up a holiday decoration there: like a Chrismuhanukwanzaa ladder that is covered in Christmas lights and Hanukkiahs and kinara for Kwanzaa. And when we set it up in 2019, I looked over at Ari and I was just joking around going [singing] “Electric menorah, electric menorah.” And we just vibed to that. I think literally the next day, he came over, and we decided to lay down this track. And then we made a commitment — only to ourselves, so this article will be our first public commitment — to do eight of these songs. We’re doing one a year, and we’re now on the fourth track. The first year we went with an electro-pop, bedroom pop song about electric menorahs. It’s very anti-petroleum industry. And we went from there.
The next year, Ari and I were working on a lot of disco tracks together. So we decided to do Hanukkah disco. And Ari came up with this great idea about partying with your friends at home for the holidays and getting sick because of the chocolate gelt and too much food, but still shaking your booty on the dance floor. I feel like every song we make, Ari’s like, “But how can we mention upset stomachs?”
AP: We have a line about deep fried foods in this year’s song too.
MW: Every song being about stomach pain is such an Ashkenaz Jewish experience. But anyway, the third song is very on the nose. It’s called “High on Hanukkah.” And we got this absolute Baltimore legend, a klezmer clarinet player named Seth Kibel, to play on it.
AP: When he plays clarinet, he looks like he’s davening. It’s amazing, and I’ve never seen anything like it.
MW: It’s been a really fun experiment to tap into what Baltimore Jewish people we can find to get on our tracks. A friend of mine is an artist who goes by Megafauna, and she plays guitar on “High on Hanukkah” and the newest song. You should definitely check out her album “The Betrayal of Bees & Wasps,” by the way. It’s so Jewish and so queer. It’s full of Jewish guilt, trauma and a little bit of horniness. And my friend Eyas (Jenna Balderson), who’s a Filipino Jewish woman, does some vocals on “4th Night of Hanukkah.”
It seems like it’s such a community effort.
AP: In Micah’s music and my own music, I think that’s something we really focus on. Micah always has maybe 10 to 20 people on a track in different capacities. And I do the same with my own band, Ari and the Buffalo Kings. But with these Hanukkah songs, we just want to add more to the Hanukkah music repertoire without making cliched Jewish music. We’re making the music that we would make anyway on a Jewish theme, but then you can hear there’s a little taste of Ashkenaz in there — like how we had Seth Kibel play on, “High on Hanukkah,” which is this silly, modern pop song. We throw in a little bit of the roots.
MW: [The song is like] Billie Eilish, but with klezmer. And then with “4th Night of Hanukkah,” there’s something about a slightly minor or diminished chord that just sounds Jewish to me. And then I added a little bit of yoi-di-dois at the end.
AP: That is exactly what I’m talking about. There’s enough that the people who know will know and be like, “Wow, I feel really connected to that music.” But it’s not like in order for something to be Hanukkah music, it can only be klezmer or liturgical.
MW: And we, of course, love the Sandman. But growing up with “The Chanukah Song,” there was one year where it felt really special. And then after that, it really felt like non-Jews took it over and were laughing a little too hard at it. So we really want to try and make songs that could be listened to by non-Jewish people, because they’re sonically enjoyable, but that also have so many moments that are only truly understood by Jewish people.
That’s great. Can you tell me more about “4th Night of Hanukkah”?
MW: So [the song] is a little meta in that it’s the fourth track we’re releasing, and we’re releasing the EP in track order: “Electric Menorah” from 2019, “Hanukkah Disco” from 2020, “High on Hanukkah” from 2021 and “4th Night of Hanukkah” from this year. So when we started working on this song, we were like, “OK, well, this is the fourth track we’ve made. It’s the fourth track on the record. So it’s got to be about the fourth night of Hanukkah because who remembers the fourth night of Hanukkah? No one!”
AP: It’s kind of like the hump day of Hanukkah, you know? It’s still nice and fun, but it’s not as exciting as the first couple nights and not as triumphant as the last night. In my family, the fourth night would be when we’ve already eaten dinner and we’re like, “Oh yeah, we need to light the candles.”
That idea captures something I haven’t seen or heard in other Hanukkah media. Because I agree, I think the fourth night of Hanukkah pales in comparison to the other nights.
MW: If we’re thinking four years in advance, our goal is to end with a bang. And, by the way, we truly write these tracks in August or September every year. But we want the full EP to have a resurgence of energy at the end. “4th Night of Hanukkah” is upbeat, but it’s also a slow, kind of sad ballad. That’s the other thing with Hanukkah songs, right? We don’t get sad Hanukkah songs. I’m not saying that this is a depressing song, but there are so many Christmas songs that range the gamut from sad to melancholy to excited to curious. So this is our mid-record low.
So now we’ve got bedroom pop, we’ve got disco, we’ve got doomy Billie Eilish, almost dubstep-sounding shit and we’ve got this one, which is a noise-pop ballad, inspired by Broadcast, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, those kinds of groups.
So next year isn’t quite on the radar yet. But do you have any seeds of ideas of what you want to do in future years?
MW: Ari and I have been talking about a country song with the premise of like, “I won’t be home for Hanukkah.”
AP: The tag will be like, [singing] “Oh, I won’t be home for Hanukkah. It’s not that big a deal.” It’s kind of about how — and it probably varies family to family, but for me — if I’m not home for Hanukkah, it’s not the same as not being around for Yom Kippur or Passover. So it would just try and express that in a way that’s kind of tongue-in-cheek and very much the opposite of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
MW: My mom had the nerve to be like “Micah, I love your Hanukkah songs. But Passover is really important. You should start making songs for Passover.” And I was like, “Don’t do this to me. I’m not adding more to my plate. I already have the next four to five years covered with Hanukkah songs.” Our goal is that in 2026, we want to throw a release show for the full EP. I’d want to have a whole band that’s Jewish and perform these songs for the first time all together. Oh, and we also have talked about writing a punk Hanukkah song. I don’t know what that will be about, but I love viewing it with fresh eyes every year.
Do you have any ideas about future overall themes? Or is that also fresh every year?
MW: I mean, for the most part that’s fresh each year too. There’s something great about seeing what we’re feeling and what’s topical each year. And it’s really cool to have this check in with Ari every year. For example, Ari is in Brazil this year, so we weren’t able to have him on the track. But we fleshed out the track together.
AP: And also, as musicians, we’re growing every year and we’re learning different things. So it’s nice to come to it with the mindset of like, “OK, Ari and Micah in whatever year. What are we feeling musically?” It’s fun to do it that way instead of being like, “OK, here’s our eight year plan, and we’re going to execute it.”
MW: My favorite thing about this new Hanukkah song is that it’s a perfect example of being in the moment: We were trying to figure out what Jewish celebrity is the equivalent of the fourth night of Hanukkah. Ari and I were meeting at this coffee shop, so we decided to ask the room. We were like, “OK, the fourth night of Hanukkah is mundane, a little blase. A little hump day. Who’s a celebrity that’s like that? Who’s Jewish and unproblematic and unexciting but still desirable?” And someone was like, “Joseph Gordon-Levitt.” And we were like, “Holy crap.”
That’s so funny.
MW: He’s cute, he’s a little boring and he’s Jewish. That’s the fourth night of Hanukkah. So we name-drop him in this new track, because he’s our little metaphor.
That’s perfect. I could not think of a better celebrity to encapsulate the fourth night. So you’ve talked a little bit working with Jewish musicians in Baltimore. Do you have a wishlist of other musical collaborators?
MW: There’s this guy in this new experimental art punk band Mowder Oyal. He’s punk as hell, so if we do a punk song, he’s the first person I’m gonna call up. And then a folk artist named Abby Becker would be great.
AP: Yeah, Abby Becker would be awesome.
MW: I’ve thought about bringing her in for maybe some fiddly violin for a country song, if and when we do that. It’s not great to have a list of Jews, I know. But this is a list of Jews we love.
AP: Every year, we meet new people, new people come to Baltimore, and our circles start growing. So it’s nice to leave that open.
MW: There’s this great operatic duo in Baltimore called Outcalls, and one of them is Jewish. I’ve collaborated with them a lot and so I’ve been talking about doing a duet with them. But yeah, every year the list gets longer. It’s just so cool to have all these artists around us and realize that we share this culture with them, and then get to musically explore that culture with them. What other instances do you really have to sit down with someone and be like, “You’re Jewish, I’m Jewish, how does that relate?” On these songs, we get to really tap into it and it makes me feel connected.
Besides making your own music, what would you say is your favorite Hanukkah tradition?
AP: It’s actually a point of contention in my family because my father decided that he doesn’t want to fry latkes in the house anymore — one year we had to go outside on the grill — but I just love that smell, like when the onions hit the oil and start frying… that’s absolutely my favorite part. And then like even the smell — it’s very smell oriented for me for some reason — of the candles being lit. It always gives me very warm feelings.
MW: I love sharing the tradition with non-Jewish people, like friends who wonder or want to know more about Hanukkah. I love making latkes and playing dreidel, and showing them the Hanukkah Rugrats episode — which is the best way to sum it up, it just truly is scientifically proven to be the best Hanukkah representation. And this isn’t necessarily Hanukkah-related, but there’s nothing I cherish more than movies and Chinese food on Christmas Day. It is so ingrained in our culture and it’s so special.