Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Banu Choshekh: Do we really want to be singing "Begone black!"?
Download alternative Ba'nu Choshekh (two versions) here!
Not too many years ago, I first heard the song Ba'nu Choshekh at the Chanukah concert of my son's Jewish day school. This was a school with a fair number of Jews of color. I was pretty schocked.
The lyrics of Ba'nu Choshekh promulgate an idea of light vs. dark that has had horrifying racist repercussions throughout history. Here's a translation of the song:
We have come to banish darkness, in our hands light and fire. Each one of us is a little light, but all of us (together) are a mighty light. Get away darkness, begone black, flee before the light!
The words “Be gone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong thing to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past – certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tanai – would have had racist intentions. But structural racism mostly isn't based on intentions. There's more to criticize in the song, as I discovered next spring, when I got a telescope and started doing amateur astronomy. The next season, I got involved in a campaign to stop the installation of LED street lights that could drown out our view of the stars. That gave me three reasons to reject the imagery of Ba'nu Choshekh.
Fundamentally, the idea that somehow we are trying to defeat the dark on Chanukah is foolish. Darkness is essential to the warp and weave of this world, as much as light. In fact, the halakhah agrees: Chanukah candles are not kosher if their flames come together "like a torch" – they must be separated by darkness in order to fulfill the mitzvah. That is not an idle or meaningless rule. As I wrote, "No one sits in front of the menorah thinking, 'I can’t wait for these candles to grow so bright that there’s no more darkness.' Darkness is the condition that makes the candles beautiful and sweet." We are planting seeds of light with the small flames of our lit wicks, seeds that grow in the soil of darkness.
People have written a few new versions of Ba'nu Choshekh in response to these problems. I like my full rewrite best, but I'll share three versions here. The second one, from Rabbi Jill Hammer, is especially useful because it only changes four words. I have also laid out the first two, four to a sheet, in PDF format, so you can easily download, print, and share them. (They also match up back-to-back, if you want to teach both.)
2) The next one, from Rabbi Jill Hammer with a tweak from me, transforms the meaning with only slight changes to the wording: