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Jewish Cantors Celebrate Hanukkah With Virtual Concerts

The Cantors of Wisconsin perform over a video call. On Sunday, for the first time ever, about a dozen Wisconsin cantors will virtually broadcast a mix of Hanukkah tunes, both traditional and reimagined.
The Cantors of Wisconsin perform over a video call. On Sunday, for the first time ever, about a dozen Wisconsin cantors will virtually broadcast a mix of Hanukkah tunes, both traditional and reimagined.

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, falls in the darkest time of year. Days are short, sunlight is scarce, and this year, there's the added darkness of a pandemic.

Cantors from around the country have stepped in to bring music and spirit to the Jewish community. In Wisconsin, the group Cantors of Wisconsin has found a "silver lining" in sheltering at home. With virtual conferencing, it became easier for them to meet and organize.

"Just before the High Holy Days, we decided, 'Wouldn't it be nice to present a Hanukkah concert for the community?' " says Cantor David Barash of Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun of Milwaukee.

"Because we can do this in a much easier fashion in the sense that we're spread out geographically, but if people join in on Zoom, we can be close together almost instantaneously."

On Sunday evening, for the first time ever, about a dozen Wisconsin cantors will virtually broadcast a mix of Hanukkah tunes, both traditional and reimagined. Some performances will be live and some prerecorded. A professional sound engineer mixed together two tunes of the whole group singing separately and then pieced them together.

There will be favorites like "Ma'oz Tzur" and "Al HaNissim" and also lesser-known melodies, like "Boruch Ato," which is sung in Yiddish.

Cantors are also staging other virtual events around the country. On Thursday, Congregation Kol Emeth of Palo Alto, Calif., is organizing a National Virtual Hanukkah Celebration. In Chicago, Israel's consulate is holding a virtual candle lighting ceremony featuring cantors and musicians from Chicago and Israel.

Kulanu, an organization that supports Jewish communities around the globe, is holding a benefit with music from Guatemala, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Indonesia and elsewhere.

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. People traditionally gather around the table at home, sing songs, light candles and exchange gifts.

This year, because of the pandemic, most people won't invite over extended family or go to in-person community events. It's a different feeling, says Cantor Barash.

"Judaism is built on community," he says. "To have services, to come together to do social action projects, whatever it is, we do this as a community. Most of our prayers are structured in the plural, as opposed to in the singular."

Their concert on Sunday night will try to bring back some of that soul — with technology, says Cantor David Perper of Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee.

"Zoom has been a godsend," he says. "Imagine if we had to go through this without the Internet." He is singing in the Wisconsin concert with his wife, Cantor Faith Steinsnyder.

"Look, I think Hanukkah happens during the time of year where we need all the light we can get," says Perper. "And with all the other layers, all the more reason, all the more now, to give people as much fulfillment and joy and music as we can, in whatever channels are available to us."

The holiday tells the story of the Maccabees, a small band of Jews who won back the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.

The holiday is eight days long because, as Cantor Barash says, "the story that many people know is that there was only enough oil for one day to keep the temple illuminated. And miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days."

Barash says the real miracle is that God was able to help the Jews overcome adversity. "And I think that kind of is the story. That perhaps even in these times of COVID when there's all this adversity and a feeling of depression all around us, there is hope," he says. "We see the vaccine is coming out, and there's hope that things will get better."

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