How’s this for international influence? In 2004 a seminar was offered on American Jewish culture at the University of Munich; the students were required to present their research on a representative Jewish figure who has made a significant contribution to the arts or to thought in the United States. As the instructor, I asked the first Bavarian-based student who came to my office to indicate her choice of a topic, and was stunned by her selection: “Adam Sandler.”
The comic actor is almost certainly better known for “The Chanukah Song” than for any of the three-dozen movies in which he has starred. It premiered on a December 1994 show of Saturday Night Live and thus drew popular attention to a holiday that, only a decade earlier, had inspired President Ronald Reagan to tell religious broadcasters of his pleasure in looking out at Lafayette Park and seeing “the huge menorah, celebrating the Passover season.” Sandler’s initial version generated such enthusiasm that he did two sequels. In 2002 the concept of “The Chanukah Song” was expanded into an animated film, Sony Pictures’ Eight Crazy Nights, which may be the only Hollywood film dedicated to this holiday. In 1999, when a chapter of the Hillel Foundation was inaugurated at West Point, the Jewish cadets celebrated the occasion by singing “The Chanukah Song.” It had evidently displaced “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
The popularity of Sandler’s song can be gauged by setting it off against two other recent musical efforts to pump meaning into the festival. In 1983 folksinger Peter Yarrow decided to tap into his own secular Jewish heritage when Peter, Paul and Mary were scheduled to perform a “Holiday Celebration” at Carnegie Hall. In “Light One Candle” Yarrow asked listeners to light a taper “for the terrible sacrifice/Justice and freedom demand/But light one candle for the wisdom to know/When the peacemaker’s time is at hand.” But seven years later the idealism marking much of Jewish politics would give way to satire, when Tom Lehrer invoked Chanukah in southern California, “wearing sandals, /Lighting candles/By the sea.” Luckily for him, the holiday itself rhymed with Santa Monica, just as the demographic shift to the Sunbelt ensured that fewer and fewer Jews would be celebrating “Shavuos in East St. Louis.” The comforts of California even led Lehrer to wonder at the imaginary reaction of “Judas Maccabeus/Boy, if he could see us.”
But compared to “The Chanukah Song,” Yarrow’s denunciation of persecution and injustice came across as too earnest for popular taste, an echo of the Sixties out of sync with the administration of Ronald Reagan. Compared to the moral fervor of “Light One Candle,” Sandler’s song is downright silly. Compared to the cleverness and wit of “I’m Spending Chanukah in Santa Monica,” Sandler’s list song is amateurish and trite. No inspiration or perspiration was required to concoct the rhymes. The names of the celebrities are so easy to substitute that they violate the central rule of the lyricist’s craft, which is to make the climactic words both surprising and inevitable.
“The Chanukah Song” nevertheless caught on. It’s a reasonable guess that Sandler wasn’t trying to emulate Cole Porter anyway, and preferred to reach out to adolescents and pre-adolescents–and of course to the young at heart. (The second, 1999 version was recorded live at Brandeis University.) The popularity of “The Chanukah Song” isn’t entirely explainable in terms of the degradation of taste, however. But when movie and television stars are more familiar than any author or almost any politician, celebrities are recognizable in a way that no religious authority, no rabbi or sage, can hope to match. “The Chanukah Song” is therefore the soundtrack to the historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s famous definition of fame, which is bestowed on people well-known for their well-knownness. Boorstin contrasted them with the heroes whose great deeds the bards once recorded, a distinction lost upon the students of Manhattan day school who, when pollsters asked them in 1996 to name their heroes, put Jerry Seinfeld first. Finishing second was Adam Sandler.
In taking for granted the authority of celebrity, “The Chanukah Song” addresses the emotional need for Yuletide solace. For children feeling estranged during the season, because the parents deny the divinity of Christ, Sandler offers a comic affirmation intended–quite honorably–to assuage the psychic pain of feeling excluded. Irving Berlin had the inspired idea of turning Christmas into a holiday that is more meteorological than theological, that recalls the excitement of snow but neglects to mention the birth of mankind’s savior. “White Christmas” (1942) became the most recorded song in history. Sandler is (characteristically) less subtle in confronting what membership in a religious minority imposes. But he did know how to touch a tender place in the heart of the American Jewish family, at a season of special vulnerability.
Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University and is the author of In Search of American Jewish Culture(University Press of New England, 1999).