Chanukah kicks off with concerts

Matisyahu will perform at the Music Center at Strathmore on Dec. 9.Photo provided
Matisyahu will perform at the Music Center at Strathmore on Dec. 9.
Photo provided

Chanukah is a complicated holiday for many. While its more recognizable symbols and rituals have to do with the miracle of the oil, Chanukah’s story is also that of a military victory.

“We’re celebrating two separate things … so it’s kind of schizophrenic,” said Beth El Congregation Cantor Thom King. “The main reason the oil became emphasized was because people didn’t want — when Jews were being oppressed — to brag about a military victory to attract attention to say how powerful they are.”

On the first night of Chanukah, a concert at Beth El will tell the story of Chanukah in a performance featuring an orchestra and a 75-person choir performing performs Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus.”

The concert, dedicated to the memory of Cantor Saul Hammerman, whose yahrzeit occurs around Chanukah, features members of the Beth El Choir, the Pikesville High Alumni Choir, the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church as well as Beth El’s junior choir. The church’s music director and organist, Michael Britt, will serve as the evening’s conductor.

“It’s a very interesting piece. It’s a little more dramatic than something like ‘The Messiah,’” King said. “It’s an actual story with a libretto.”

While Chanukah may get caught up in the craziness of the holiday season, King sees deeper meaning in the holiday as the story of the Jewish people and Israel.

“[It’s] a small country surrounded by enemies that manages to hold its own,” he said. “The recapturing of the Western Wall in 1967 was a reflection of that idea of recapturing the Temple and rededicating the Temple. So the story of Israel is really like the story of Chanukah in a lot of ways — an almost miraculous occurrence.”

The night before the Beth El concert, Washington Hebrew Congregation hosts Shira & Friends, which plays rock music for kids, at the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center in Potomac.

It’ll be the first time that Shira Kobren, a Washington native and graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, brings her band to her hometown. It means her grandparents will finally be able to see what she does.

Kobren, who plays music with children full time and is on staff at Central Synagogue and Temple Israel in Manhattan, said her band will perform a mix of original songs and Chanukah songs with the band’s rock flavor added to it.

“Our shows are always interactive. There’s going to be lots of dancing, lots of intergenerational fun,” Kobren said. “It’s really important for me that I cater to the adults, not just the kids.”

She thinks singing and dancing is the perfect way to celebrate the holiday.

“I just love the feeling of sharing the music, sharing the joy of the holiday with so many people that want to celebrate as well,” she said. “There’s so many symbols that are so tangible to children, and when children can participate it makes it such a greater celebration for the family.”

And what would Chanukah be without everyone’s favorite Jewish reggae singer? Matisyahu comes to the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda on Dec. 9, and Rams Head Live! on Dec. 10. The concerts, billed as “Festival of Light: An Intimate Evening with Matisyahu,” feature stripped-down performances of Matisyahu’s music, highlighting everything from his early hits to his 2014 release, “Akeda.” He is touring in support of the October release of his live album Live at Stubbs Vol. III, which features arrangements that will be featured at the concerts.

‘Judas Maccabaeus,’ Beth El, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Pikesville, 4 p.m. Dec. 6, $18. Call 410-484-0411 for tickets.
Shira & Friends, Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Julia Bindeman Suburban Center, 11810 Falls Road, Potomac, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Dec. 5, $20 per family. For tickets, visit
For information and tickets to the Matisyahu concerts, visit

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