For me as an Israeli, there is one Hanukkah song that reigns supreme. You might not know “Ba’anu Choshech Legaresh” — “We Came to Expel the Darkness,” but as Israeli actress Rivka Michaeli once said in her radio show, there is no greater joy than watching a group of people, children and grown-ups, sing it together in full volume and with their whole bodies.
What makes the song so delicious is one moment in particular, in which everyone must stomp their feet as hard as they can. “Sura, choshech, hal’ah schor!” they sing, kicking the ground as hard as they can — “Go away, darkness, move on bleakness” — and then, with another stomp “sura, mipnei ha’or” — “run away from the light.”
Another part of the song that I love is the line “kol echad hu or katan, ve’kulanu or eitan” — “Everyone is a small light, and together we are a powerful light.” Sometimes, each singer gets to hold a candle, so you can see how much light a room full of candles really makes.
This particularly enchanting song (that I don’t think too many American Jews know) was written by one very special woman, Sarah Levi-Tanai. (Or, as the students at her daycare and the people around her called her, SarahLevi, all one word.) She made up songs to teach her kids about Jewish holidays and traditions, and many of them have become part of Israeli lore.
Sarah came from a Yemenite Jewish family that settled in pre-state Israel in the 19th century. When she was 7, her family was deported from Jaffa by the Ottoman authorities along with around 8000 Jews. She was orphaned young, and later widowed young. In her youth, she had a dream of becoming an actress, but after Israel’s founding, she couldn’t find an entry into the local theater scene, and feared it was because of her Arabic accent.
In 1949 she started the Jewish Yemeni dance troupe Inbal, teaching dance and inventing choreographies that incorporated traditional dance for local, mostly Yemeni Jewish youth. Jerome Robbins, the Academy Award winning choreographer behind many of our favorite musicals including “West Side Story,” was stunned when he first saw Sarah Levi’s choreography.
“She’s a genius!” he told a member of the troupe, before urging the Jewish fund that sent him to the country to take her troupe under its wing.
For decades, under her artistic direction, the troupe toured the world, sharing beautiful tunes in Arabic in Yemeni garb. Sarah was awarded the Israel prize for her work with Inbal.
Yet that stomp from a Hanukkah song is the one dance move that, more than anything, embedded itself in generation after generation of Israelis. Almost two decades after her death, Sarah Levi-Tanai, her love for children and for Yemeni art and dance, is still part of my DNA, and it will always be.
I’m not sure how to shoo away the darkness right now. It is a bleak time to be Israeli in the world. A complicated time to be Jewish.
And yet, as SarahLevi reminds me, together we are a powerful light. As you light your Hanukkah candles this week. I hope you think of all the candles and all the light being brought into the world.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe you want to join me, and listen to her song, and stomp away some darkness, too.