Every year, I write about a ton of funny Jewish holiday parodies. But heartfelt new Hanukkah music that’s not just aimed at kids? That’s been pretty hard to find. Since 2019’s “Hanukkah+” album, I haven’t heard many new songs that catered to both my love for the holiday and for smooth indie rock and guitar riffs.
So I was thrilled when I listened to a new Hanukkah song by Berklee College of Music professor and TV music writer Mike Sempert, perfectly titled “Hold On to the Light.” The song really hits all the right notes — it feels both fresh and nostalgic, sincere and a little schmaltzy (schmaltz is perfect for fying latkes, after all), both a little rock and roll and comfortingly mellow.
Sempert, a father of a 6 and 8-year-old, defines his music as dad rock. “I make literal dad rock and I’m very proud to offer it to the world, now in Hanukkah form,” he told Kveller over e-mail.
Something that I love about this song is that it touches on a kind of “impostor syndrome” that less observant and secular Jews sometimes feel — an insecurity around how to “practice” Jewish holidays, a fear that just because they’re less engaged with their Judaism, they’re doing it wrong. It’s the anxious googling of prayers and recipes at the last moment, the constantly forgetting when the holidays are because you don’t keep up with the Jewish calendar, the dread of pronouncing that Hebrew word wrong or misremembering the story of a holiday.
“Sometimes I don’t remember what this holiday’s about,” Sempert admits in the song, and “sometimes I don’t remember how to make a latke,” which, as the song asserts, is more complicated than you’d think.
Yet, as Sempert himself quickly reminds us in the song, “it doesn’t really matter if you’re doing it right, just hold on to the light,” he sings. And it’s true, despite what anyone may tell you, there’s no one correct way to celebrate a holiday, just a way that works best for your family. Whether you hand grate your latkes or buy them from Trader Joe’s, whether you remember the Hanukkah blessings by heart or have to google them every time — we all keep that Jewish oil burning with the traditions that feel right to our families.
For Sempert, writing “Hold On to the Light” was a way to pass a Jewish tradition down to a new generation. “The kids have heard me working on it a lot, and I catch them singing it to themselves sometimes, so that feels like a big win,” he told Kveller.
Kveller talked to Sempert about how he came to make Hanukkah music and what the festival of lights means to him.
Can you tell me how this song came to be?
It just seemed like there was a real lack of straight-forward, sincere Hanukkah songs, so I figured why not! It went in this Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne direction which are deeply nostalgic influences for me. Some of the inspiration for the lyrics actually comes from this song “Oil In My Lamp” made famous by the Byrds and Jamaican ska artist Eric Morris.
This is definitely a fraught time to be Jewish in America. Does it change the way you think about this song?
I think it’s an important time to lean into our Jewishness and be visibly Jewish in whatever ways feel authentic to us. The lyric “keep that oil burning” could mean a lot of things but to me it just means “hang in there, stay hopeful, stay connected to your life and the people in it.” And that can be hard enough during the winter months, regardless of all of the horrors of October 7th and its aftermath. To me, Hanukkah has always functioned similarly to other holidays like Diwali, Christmas and Kwanzaa— it’s about creating light in the darkness and cozy times together.
Do you have any favorite Jewish holiday songs? What are some of your Jewish musical inspirations?
There’s always Adam Sandler’s jokey classic, but besides that, not much to be honest. The Hanukkah prayer itself is really beautiful and I felt compelled to work it into the song as a slide guitar outro. My mother’s voice singing the Hanukkah prayer is one of the more profound sense memories I have.
You talk about not feeling Jewish enough, a common feeling for many Jews of all different backgrounds! Can you talk a little bit about your Jewish childhood and how that feeling manifested itself then and how this song has helped you reclaim your Jewish identity, and if there are other ways you have found to reclaim it?
I grew up in a secular household; my mother is Jewish. Most of my Jewish identity is cultural and comes from my mother’s side of the family, — my Bubba, aunts and uncles, a wonderful cast of characters debating with each other at Passover seder every year. I’ve studied Torah on my own with a friend who is a rabbi (great friend to have btw, 10/10!). I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood and most of my childhood friends were Jewish and were given a Hebrew education, so I always felt less Jewish than them. It wasn’t until I found myself in adulthood surrounded by non-Jews that I really felt a need to represent more. So in a way, antisemitism made me want to double down! And I know a lot of Jews feel that way right now.
What are your plans for Hanukkah this year?
Probably store bought latkes and sufganiyot from my local kosher market, lighting the menorah with my family, giving gifts and inviting friends over to join, Jews and non-Jews alike.