Kitka solves Hanukkah challenge with Yiddish tunes, no dreidel songs

For a world-class choral group planning winter holiday concerts, the Hanukkah song list is a little shopworn and juvenile.

“It’s a challenge to find pieces for Hanukkah that are a bit more aesthetically pleasing than ‘Dreidl, dreidl,’ ” said Shira Cion, executive artistic director of Kitka, an Oakland-based women’s ensemble with both an international repertoire and following. “So it’s always a treasure hunt to find material that’s beautiful for Hanukkah.”

For its annual five-concert “Wintersongs” series, taking place Dec. 12-20 around the Bay Area, Kitka will premier six Yiddish songs and reprise an Israeli dance tune, none of them mentioning candles or gelt. The nine-member ensemble also will apply its lush, complex harmonies to Eastern European Christian and pre-Christian pagan songs.

Oakland-based Kitka kicks off its Wintersongs series Dec. 12. photo/kitka-thomas pancha

Not that they’re ignoring Hanukkah. The Old Countryish “Lekoved yontef, lekoved Shabes” (In honor of the holiday, in honor of the Sabbath) reveals a rebbe’s wishes:

“Latkes with shmaltz, so that the rebbe and his wife should have healthy throats … A plateful of fish, so that the rebbe and his wife should have healthy feet … A plateful of chicken soup, so that the rebbe and his wife should have healthy stomachs.”

Cion said she was “struck by the song, because unlike many Yiddish songs, [which are] traditionally sung without harmony,” she found a video of two Belorussian sisters “singing it in two-part harmony.”

A song with only unison singing can be a deal-breaker for an ensemble like Kitka, which relishes complex harmonies, and Eastern European Jewish songs are traditionally sung solo. Kitka solves that problem with a medley of three Yiddish lullabies that interweave singing by three soloists. “It becomes a mash-up, representative of all the voices of all the mothers of the world and their love for their children and concern for the state of the world,” Cion explained.

The medley includes the lullaby “Az di vest batsuln brider” (When you have the means, brother), a commentary on poverty. It transitions to “Dremlen feygl oyf di tsvaygn” (Birds are dozing on the branches), based on a Holocaust poem by Leah Rudnitsky in which a child learns that her mother will never return and her father “was seen running under showers of stones.” They link with “Hayda-lu-lu,” in which a child hears that her father will bring her a bird and a flower. “It’s a story of escaping and bringing back hope,” Cion said.

Kitka has “adopted a tradition of singing dark songs in the darkest time of the year,” Cion said. “Lullabies are an interesting sort of genre — tender and sweet melodies, but with very dark lyrics. They’re soothing to the children, but also give voice to what’s going on in the mothers’ inner lives: harsh times, danger in the world, pouring their souls out to the pre-linguistic beings.”

But the Jewish portion of the concert won’t be all doom and gloom. Kitka will sing the Havdallah song “A gute vokh” (A good week), with a choral arrangement Cion created.

The most seasonally explicit selection may be Kitka’s own arrangement of “Hulyet, Hulyet, veyze vintn” (Howl, howl, raging winds), which has become associated with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Cion said. “It became a sort of anthem of that period. The laborers who sang it changed the last line from ‘Winter will last a long time’ to ‘Winter will not last long; spring is not far off.’ ”

Striking an upbeat note, the Russian-Yiddish-Hebrew song “Lubavitsher redl” is a Hassidic “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Cion said. The lyrics declare that yesterday’s gone, tomorrow hasn’t arrived and “there’s only this little bit of today — don’t mess it up by worrying.”

Kitka “Wintersongs”
concerts: 8 p.m. Dec. 12 at Marin JCC, San Rafael; 4 p.m. Dec. 13 at St. Bede’s, Menlo Park; 8 p.m. Dec. 18 at St. Paul’s, Oakland; 8 p.m. Dec. 19 at Old First Church, S.F.; and free community sing-along 5 p.m. Dec. 20 at Nile Hall, Oakland. $10-$40.