Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Voicing the Meaning of “The Chanukah Song”

December 10, 2012 4:22 pm 0 comments

Adam Sandler has come a long way since releasing his ballad of young Jewish angst in 1994. Photo: EPA/MIKE NELSON

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).

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Features Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    JNS.org – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall. Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events. But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this […]

    Read more →
  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Actor Zachary Levi said casting directors have denied him roles for being “too Jewish,” despite the fact that he is not a Jew, the New York Daily News‘ Confidenti@l reported on Wednesday. “I guess they were looking for more of a corn-fed, white boy look,” he said. “My family is from f****** Indiana! Come on, I’m like dying here!” The Thor star clarified that he is Welsh, and that Levi is actually his middle name, while his real last name is Pugh. He said he […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    The secret of Chabad’s worldwide success is revealed by veteran Chabad shliach (emissary) Rabbi David Eliezrie in his new book, The Secret of Chabad. The Chabad movement was founded by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Liadi, Belarus, in 1775. Years later it came to the US with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in 1940, after his escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Upon his arrival in New York, a number of his co-religionists advised him that there was no place for traditional […]

    Read more →