Berklee Professor Releases Heartfelt Hanukkah Song

Mike Sempert recently released "Hold On to the Light," a catchy track with a sincere message about what it means to be Jewish during the holiday season.

December 14, 2023
Mike Sempert

At this time of year, there seems to be an endless supply of Christmas songs taking over the airwaves, with new records released every season. In contrast, songs about Hanukkah, especially the non-satirical variety, are much less common and typically lack the widespread presence enjoyed by traditional holiday standards.

Enter Mike Sempert, an artist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, media composer, entrepreneur, and assistant professor of songwriting who teaches both at the Boston campus and Berklee Online. Sempert took on the challenge of writing a sincere song about Hanukkah, and his efforts culminated with the recent release of “Hold On to the Light,” a warm, catchy tune that borrows from ’70s rock to deliver a heartfelt message about what it means to be Jewish during Hanukkah. What started out as a “bonus track” for Sempert ended up becoming a song that he hopes will offer a genuine perspective on what matters during the holidays that resonates with listeners of all beliefs.

In addition to his role as a Berklee educator, Sempert runs the commercial music company West Channel and is currently wrapping up a film score for an independent action film. His music has been performed at the Guggenheim Museum, the San Francisco Jazz Center, and the Rathaus in Vienna, among many other venues, and his film scores include the award-winning indie films Summoning the Spirit, A Room Full of Nothing, and Homestate. We caught up with him to take a deeper dive into “Hold On to the Light” and the important message behind the endearing song.

Tell us about what inspired you to write “Hold On to the Light.” Was writing a Hanukkah song something you set out to do or did it come together more spontaneously?

Dan Kaplowitz from Friendly Fire Licensing (a sync house based in LA) is an old friend and encouraged me to try writing a Hanukkah song for sync. There's not a lot of sincere Hanukkah songs out there! It turned into something I'm really proud of and feel connected to in an authentic way. Even if I never license it, it's a song that I believe will outlive me and feels very meaningful. The lesson is: something positive always comes from creating new music.

You’re a father, and you describe your music as “dad rock.” What are some of the elements of your music and this song in particular that embody the distinctive "dad rock" vibe?

I don't generally think of all my music as "dad rock," but I've got some songs that are heavily influenced by that era of vintage soft rock and this song in particular certainly is. Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty collaborations such as Full Moon Fever and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 are big influences on this track. The synth solo is very influenced by Steve Winwood's approach to synth leads. I called it “dad rock” to be a bit self-deprecating, but deep down I honestly love this sound.

The song’s lyrics confront the idea of feeling inadequate or inauthentic when it comes to knowing about your faith and specific holiday traditions. Why is this theme important to you, and what message do you hope others may take away from it?

It's important for readers who don't know a lot about Judaism to understand that someone doesn't have to be religious to be Jewish—there are cultural and ethnic components to Jewish identity that are really important and sometimes exist independently of each other. So there's a lot of ways to be Jewish; there's no one right way. I think a lot of secular Jews and even Jews who were raised religious but don't actively practice have this fear that we're doing it wrong. The funny thing about this is, I think this kind of anxiety exists around other holidays too—for everyone! For example, Christmas can drive people crazy trying to make it perfect. Is the turkey too dry? I think this all comes from some similar place inside of us that can hinder our enjoyment of the holidays, which should just be about being together.

How challenging was it to write a holiday song that you felt would resonate and feel relevant for current times, particularly a Hanukkah song? 

There's a great compilation called Hanukkah+, but there's nothing out there with this particular ’70s soft-rock vibe on there. So the lack of precedent kind of helped, to be honest, and writing the song came easily. And I didn't feel like I had to worry about it being too this or too that; it was just a bonus song. I try to encourage all of my students to think of their songwriting in this way if possible. The bonus songs are written from a place of freedom, they aren't "necessary," they don't define your value as an artist or a person, they're just for fun (omg what?), and they tend to be the best songs you write.

Will we see more holiday songs from you in the future? Perhaps an entire album?

Maybe so! I've written a couple of Christmas songs too, which is a very Jewish thing in its own way. Type "Christmas songs written by Jews" into Google and you'll see what I mean.

Listen to Mike Sempert's "Hold On to the Light":

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