Ten years ago, I visited Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah and a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Capitol Hill. I was writing for The New York Times Magazine and Hatch was thinking of running for president. We talked about politics for a few minutes, and then he said, “Have you heard my love songs?”
No senator had asked me that question before. It turned out that Hatch was a prolific songwriter, not only of love songs, but of Christian spirituals as well. We spent an hour in his office listening to some of his music, a regular Mormon platter party. After five or six Christmas songs, I asked, him, “What about Hanukkah songs? You have any of those?”
I have always felt that the song canon for Hanukkah, a particularly interesting historical holiday, is sparse and uninspiring, in part because Jewish songwriters spend so much time writing Christmas music. Several years earlier, as a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, I sponsored a Write-a-New-Song-for-Hanukkah contest. I received more than 200 entries. Most were dreck. The songs I liked best were the ones uninfected by self-distancing Jewish irony, songs that actually wrestled with the complicated themes of Hanukkah—religious freedom, political extremism, the existence, or non-existence, of an interventionist God—in a more earnest way.
Hatch lit up at my suggestion. He asked me to jot down some possible themes, which I did. Then he got sidetracked by his presidential campaign. (He didn’t win.) Still, time went on, and no song.
I never forgot about it, though. My interest in the Hanukkah story has stayed with me. I’m even writing a biography of Judah Maccabee for Nextbook Press. Last December, while reading From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, by Elias Bickerman, my mind wandered back to Orrin Hatch’s promise, and so I reminisced on my Atlantic blog about the time Hatch nearly wrote a Hanukkah song for me. A couple of days later, I received an email that read, “Dear Jeff, I know it’s nine years too late, but I hope you will like some of the following ideas.” What followed were five verses of a sincerely felt Hanukkah song.
I didn’t quite believe it was Hatch writing me, so I wrote back, asking this alleged Hatch to call.
The next night was Christmas Eve, and my family and I were wandering the aisles of the Martinsburg, West Virginia, Wal-Mart. (Don’t ask.) My children had just discovered something miraculous—a display case filled with kosher products. We had never seen this before. I began to deliver a lecture in the kosher food aisle, explaining that what we were seeing was further proof indeed that America is a Promised Land for our people, a place where even the Wal-Mart in Martinsburg, West Virginia, carries Manischewitz matzo-ball mix. It was at this moment that my cell phone rang.
“Jeff, it’s Orrin,” I heard over the phone. “What do you think of the song?” It was, indeed, Hatch. The second miracle of the night.
“Senator Hatch,” I said. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Yes, it is!” Hatch replied. “What about the song?”
“Senator,” I said, “I love the song.”
And I do. It’s a delightful thing to have Orrin Hatch write a song for Hanukkah. Of course I appreciate the absurdist quality to this project, but I also deeply appreciate Hatch’s earnestness. His lyrics are not postmodern or cynical, which is a blessing, because I for one have tired of the Adam Sandlerization of Judaism in America. Yes, we are, as a people, funny (at least when compared to other people, such as Croatians) but our neuroses, well-earned though they may be, have caused us to lacerate our own traditions, which are in fact (to borrow from Barack Obama) awesome. The story of Hanukkah is a good case in point—maybe the perfect one.
I also appreciate the song because Hatch’s collaborator, Madeline Stone, has written music that, to borrow this time from Felix Unger, is happy and peppy and bursting with love. And I love the fact that the song’s producer, Peter Bliss, hired a delightful singer named Rasheeda Azar, who was not only a back-up vocalist for Paula Abdul (Jew) and Janet Jackson (not a Jew) but is a Syrian-American from Terre Haute, Indiana. Rasheeda’s participation closes a circle of sorts, since the Syrian King Antiochus was, of course, the antagonist in the story of the Maccabean revolt.
And so it was a very American day in a recording studio on West 54th Street in Manhattan when we gathered to hear Rasheeda sing. In one small room were Bliss; Madeline Stone, a Jewish songwriter who writes contemporary Christian music in Nashville; a crew of downtown Jews from Tablet Magazine; Hatch’s chief of staff, Jace Johnson, who didn’t seem to know exactly what he was doing there, but was very nice about the whole episode; and Hatch himself, who sang background vocals and even showed us the mezuzah he wears under his shirt. Hatch, like many Mormons, is something of a philo-Semite, and though he is under no illusions about Jewish political leanings in America—he told me that though he likes Barbra Streisand very much, he’s fairly sure she doesn’t like him—he possesses a heartfelt desire to reach out to Jews.
Hatch said he hoped his song would be understood not only as a gift to the Jewish people but that it would help bring secular Jews to a better understanding of their own holiday. “I know a lot of Jewish people that don’t know what Hanukkah means,” he said. Jewish people, he said, should “take a look at it and realize the miracle that’s being commemorated here. It’s more than a miracle; it’s the solidification of the Jewish people.”
He’s right. Without Judah Maccabee’s militant intervention in 167 BCE, the Syrian program of forced Hellenization might have brought about a premature end to the Jewish story. But, for such a pivotal figure, Judah Maccabee is one of the more misunderstood leaders in Jewish history. He was not, for one thing, a paragon of tolerance. One of contradictions of Hanukkah—an unexplored contradiction in our culture’s anodyne understanding of the holiday—is that the Maccabee brothers were fighting not for the principle of religious freedom but only for their own particular religion’s freedom. Their understanding of liberty did not extend even—or especially—to the Hellenized Jews of Israel’s coastal plains. The Maccabees were rough Jews from the hill country of Judea. They would be amused, if they were capable of amusement, to learn that their revolt would one day be remembered as a struggle for a universal civil right.
But Hanukkah doesn’t belong simply to Judah Maccabee. Each generation finds new meanings in this holiday. The Zionist revolution, for instance, led to a revolution in the way the story of the Maccabees—previously a source of ambivalence in the Diaspora—was interpreted. And of course, the Hanukkah story doesn’t belong merely to Jews. Judah Maccabee is a hero to many Christians: If there had been no Judah, Judaism might have disappeared; no Judah and no Judaism would have meant no Jesus.
And no Judah would have meant no Mormon senator in a studio with an Arab singer and a bunch of New York Jewish background vocalists recording a Hanukkah song of his own making. To my mind, at least, this counts as a minor American miracle.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is at work on a book about Judah Maccabee for the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series.