by Jason Gross
The editor here didn't want me to write about this and I understand why. It's mainstream corn, which doesn't have a place here otherwise, where roots music and under-rated artists get feted. Even though the idea of celebrating Jewish music around Chanukah time is admirable, in covering this, it also reminds us of the uncomfortable problem that Sandler's song brings up in the first place.
When he premiered it on Saturday Night Live in December 1994, he started it out like this:
"When I was a kid, this time of year always made me feel a little left out because in school, there were so many Christmas songs and all us Jewish kids had was the song 'Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.' So I wrote a brand new song for all you Jewish kids to sing and I hope you like it."
And then he launches into a song with a weird folky melody and hilarious lyrics that no one can remember except for the chorus. That didn't stop "The Chanukah Song" from becoming an instant classic.
Sandler had been on SNL since 1990 but this particular song was one of the reasons that he became a break-out star, going into a movie career the year after he sang this on the show.
The one thing in particular that struck me about the song is that it's still a classic fifteen years after the fact. When Billboard Magazine published its list of holiday hits based on radio play, "The Chanukah Song" came up as #3 on the rock list, beat out by Trans-Siberian Orchestra and U2 but charting higher than Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas," Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," No Doubt and the freaky Bowie/Bing duet. In fact, it's the only Jewish song on the list. So like it or not, it's a holiday mainstay.
Not only did Sandler give us a funny song that the goyem themselves loved but he also got to show off some of the biggest stars in our ranks: David Lee Roth, James Caan, Kirk Douglas, Dinah Shore, Sha Na Na's Bowser, Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler), Paul Newman, Goldie Hawn, Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nemoy), Howard Schultz (football owner), Ann Landers, Dear Abby, Three Stooges. He flubs Rod Carew (who does have a Jewish family otherwise) and Harrison Ford (not a 'quarter-jew' as he says). OJ Simpson and Scrooge ain't Jewish, he says but Tom Cruise's agent probably is (another wanna check that?). In a 1999 live version, he includes Winona Ryder, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, the Beastie Boys, Lenny Kravitz, Courtney Love, Harvey Keitel, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Dylan. For a 2002 movie version, he name-checks Melissa Gilbert, Michael Landon, Jerry Lewis, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Tom Arnold, Harry Houdini, Sean Penn, Perry Farrell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Connelly, Lou Reed, Paula Abdul, Joey Ramone, Natalie Portman (and for some reason, adds Willie Nelson to the list).
Since he’s a pop artist, he picks up on the most obvious stars, mostly from film with a few token music biz people thrown in for fun and more specifically American Jews in the entertainment biz. Still, he obviously had a much bigger, broader list that he could have worked with that could have included other popular Yankee Jews like: Pat Benatar, Blue Oyster Cult, the Cars, Mama Cass Elliot, Tony Curtis, J. Geils Band, Andy Kaufman, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Randy Newman, Gene Simmons, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Tony Randall, Geraldo Rivera, Joan Rivers, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Howard Stern, Barbara Streisand, Tiny Tim, and Gene Wilder.
But of course, that's just for starters. Sandler didn't wanna look like a fogey so he left out some great oldies: Harold Arlen, Milton Berle, Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, Fanny Brice, Sid Caesar, Eddie Cantor, Cecil B. DeMille, George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Elliot Gould, George Jessel, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Marx Brothers, Walter Matthau, Beverly Sills, Phil Silvers, Neil Simon, and Mel Torme.
For us culture junkies, we can always dream of a version of "The Chanukah Song" that would give shout-out's to some of our own alternative faves: Jonathan Ames, Diane Arbus, Asleep at the Wheel, Richard Avedon, Milton Babbitt, Bad Religion, Saul Bellow, Carl Bernstein, Harold Bloom, Lenny Bruce, Paddy Chayefsky, Aaron Copland, Albert Einstein, Jonathan Safran Foer, Robert Frank, Alan Freed, Kinky Friedman, Jerome Kern, Stanley Kramer, Tony Kushner, David Mamet, Meyer Lansky, Norman Lear, Jonathan Lethem, Helen Levitt, Sol Lewitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Meredith Monk, Barnett Newman, Robert Oppenheimer, Harold Pinter, Steve Reich, Jerome Robbins, Jonathan Richman, Richard Rodgers, Philip Roth, Mark Rothko, Mort Sahl, Maurice Sendak, Rod Serling, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein, Lee Strasberg, Studs Turkel, and Elie Wiesel. Think of it: Sandler could come up with some great rhymes for Forer, Oppenheimer and Wiesel alone.
And then there's the 100's of others that Sandler and I both missed...
Neil Diamond (a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn) covered the song on his recent holiday album (A Cherry Cherry Christmas), which included Christmas songs otherwise. But I seriously believe that the tune is ripe for cover versions many times over, where any of the names above that Sandler missed could be thrown in.
And why not? Anyone who scoffs at Sandler and his song misses the point. Compare him to later-day Jewish musical comedy and he's brainier than 2 Live Jew but not quite up there with Good For the Jews or M.O.T., which both happen to feature great music scribes (Rob Tannenbaum and Roy Trakin respectively). There's Jewish musicians who explore their faith in much more complex way, especially John Zorn and the Klezmatics (and more recently film-makers the Coen brothers), not to mention Jewish artists who don't explicitly explore their faith but seem to use it as a springboard for inspiration and exploration, like Dylan, Paul Simon, Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen. But Sandler is a comedian first and foremost and the boy ain't no artiste. He's unsubtle but good at what he does, which is getting over-the-top laughs, just like the Three Stooges or Mel Brooks, all of who are nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn, just like Diamond and the author of the song discussed here.
Think of him what you will but Sandler's tune was also groundbreaking and not just for his career. For one thing, his song was a source of pride- alongside the yucks it served up, it name-checked several famous Jews. Though he didn't make it up to the level of kick-ass Jews seen in recent films like Inglourious Basterds, Munich and Defiance, "The Chanukah Song" was still an unashamed show of strength, saying "hey, look who we got in our posse!" In his own way, Sandler's song got the word out to the faithful and the goyem more than a dozen B'nai B'rith conferences could have.
And even though the orthodox of his faith and in the music community might frown on him, Sandler's song is also some kind of achievement. As he explained in his original SNL intro (and Diamond repeats in his version), he didn't have a lot of competition for Jewish holiday.
I like "The Chanukah Song" myself but I admit that it doesn't hurt that I'm Jewish myself. It's not just that I think the song's funny (it's fucking hilarious actually) but I also sympathize with Sandler about holiday songs. The dreidel song is cute enough and you've probably heard "Hava Nagila" without knowing it but unless you're deeply into the culture (which many of us non-orthodox believers ain't), you'll have a hard time remembering any other Jewish holiday tunes. And if some other goofball wants to write a wacky Chanukah (or Purim or Yom Kippur) song that millions of people love, I'm for it. Even Sandler would admit that he could stand some competition himself.