What is Hanukkah Music? Three New Holiday a Cappella Songs for 2017

The Jewish a cappella group Six13 released a 1990s boy band parody medley for Hanukkah this year. Six13

Hanukkah is a time for lighting candles, reciting prayers, eating latkes and sufganiyot (i.e. potato pancakes and doughnuts), playing dreidel games and singing songs. In recent years, Jewish a cappella groups have given this last holiday ritual new meaning by releasing creative music videos for the occasion. And 2017 is no exception.

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Hanukkah a cappella can sound like parodies of hit tracks from that year, mashups of several old or new tunes or completely original songs. Sometimes they go viral, like the Maccabeats 2010 video "Candlelight," which turned Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" into a Hanukkah sensation. The video has racked up more than 13 million views to date.

"The 'Candlelight' song allowed us to take off and do things like we did tonight," Julian Horowitz of the Maccabeats told Newsweek on Tuesday after the group performed in Trafalgar Square.

But the song did more than help the Maccabeats, one of the three major Jewish a cappella groups that now release videos like clockwork every Hanukkah and Passover. The other two, Six13 and the Y-Studs, credit "Candlelight" with launching the niche industry.

Though the groups are ostensibly each other's competition, they are friends who occasionally sing, record albums and produce videos together. Some even work together in their non-musical day jobs. "When anybody puts out a video it helps all of us," Six13 member Mordy Weinstein told Newsweek. "This is something we're all contributing to. I don't think that YouTube and Jewish events are like a zero-sum game."

In other words, there's room for everyone. And this year's incredibly diverse batch of videos highlights the stunning range of Hanukkah a cappella less than a decade after "Candlelight."

The Maccabeats mark their 10th anniversary with "Candles on the Sill"

"We've written and performed songs about every aspect of Hanukkah," Horowitz told Newsweek, from the story to the rituals to the food. But "there was one Hanukkah miracle we hadn't yet sung about and it was our own Hanukkah miracle."

This year, the Maccabeats rewrote the lyrics to Ed Sheeran's "Castle on the Hill" as "Candles on the Sill." Their heartfelt video tells the story of the group's first decade, with snippets from previous music videos and glimpses of the fame they gained, like performing on television and at the White House during the Obama Administration.

"We don't just look different, we actually sound different," Horowitz said, pointing to the maturity in their voices. They've grown up together, and more than half of the group members have kids now. Some of his friends thought "Candles on the Sill" was a farewell video, but he assures fans it's not. The group is "looking forward to the next ten [years]."

Six13 does "A Nice Jewish Boy Band Hanukkah"

If you grew up on '90s boy bands, you'll surely appreciate Six13's parody medley. Weinstein said riffing on the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" was a no brainer, but they had a long debate over which 'N Sync song to use. (They finally settled on "It's Gonna Be Me.") For the third section of the medley, Six13 debated whether to parody 98 Degrees or O-Town. And then "someone threw out, 'If you want to be my latke,' and that ended all discussions," Weinstein said. They knew they had to go with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe."

Weinstein said that Six13 tries to capture the joy of the holidays while being fun and not taking themselves too seriously. "In that vein, all of our videos have us in absurd outfits and dancing like crazy people," he said. In the case of its 2017 Hanukkah video, "we know we're not a boy band from the late 90s, but we also know we can be way more ridiculous."

And before you ask, the group is "pretty split" in their allegiances between the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. But there's perhaps a "slight majority for 'N Sync," Weinstein said.

The Y-Studs "Rise Up" against anti-Semitism and hate

The Y-Studs went a drastically different route compared with both Six13 and their own recent upbeat "La La Passover" video. The group's new video is almost like a short film that reimagines Andra Day's anthem "Rise Up" as a comment on anti-Semitic incidents and other forms of hatred in the U.S. and around the world in 2017.

In the clip, a young observant Jewish man who is very involved in the Jewish community plans a Hanukkah celebration and hands out invitations and menorahs on the sidewalk. A young woman walks by, initially turning down a menorah and reluctantly stuffing a flyer in her pocket. But she reconsiders after she sees the man bullied in the street over visible markers of Judaism. What she doesn't see is that he also comes home to find a swastika and anti-Semitic slurs scrawled on his door. She ultimately goes to the Hanukkah party and cheers up her new acquaintance, helping him "rise up from his dejection," Eitan Rubin, president of the Y-Studs, told Newsweek.

The group couldn't ignore the acts of anti-Semitism committed in 2017, citing an Anti-Defamation League report that found an 86 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the first quarter of the year. "Things are happening and it's so scary that we're living in this world with so much violence and hatred," Rubin said. "We're more fearful in 2017 and more vigilant." But the video is a reminder of "some of the central themes of Hanukkah," he added, which "involve the resilience of the Maccabees and bringing light into dark times."