Hanukkah comes early this year, which means that by mid-December, Jewish children all over America will have lost all interest in their newly gifted toys—musical instruments, video game consoles, and novelty-print socks (the traditional 5th-night gift in the Shukert household, circa 1988)—by the time the Christmas giving season has gotten into full swing. This will undoubtedly send their anxious parents into a panic about just what the hell is supposed to occupy their kids over the interminable winter break.
This also means that Hanukkah culture—such as it is, with its now consumer-heavy focus—has already kicked into high gear. My local Target store has put forward its anemic little display of dreidel-festooned napkins and boxes containing “The Mensch on a Bench,” and even my mother has started bookending our phone calls with questions about whether we want money this year, or a rug for the living room (“finally”), or money to put towards a rug.
But even as we prepare to shop ourselves into oblivion, immersing ourselves into the stress of gift-giving, perhaps it’s most important to remember the enduring symbol of the holidays. I’m not talking about togetherness, I’m talking about Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”, which was given remix No. 4 this week by the funnyman, 21 years after the original song was released.
Sandler’s updated the lyrics—which, in case you’ve forgotten, list famous Jews to make you feel a little less alone during the holidays—presumably due to the fact that all the “nice little Jewish kids…who never get to hear any Hanukkah songs” of today may not have heard of many of the fellow MOTs mentioned in the first iteration, such hall of famer, Rod Carew. And I think it’s for good measure: Does the “O.J. Simpson, not a Jew” joke still land, when he is sitting in prison, remembered mainly (if at all) for his tenuous connection to la familie Kardashian? Probably not. Sandler has updated the lyrics twice before, in 1999 (Winona Ryder, Bob Dylan) and 2002 (Debra Messing, Osama Bin Laden “not a big fan of the Jews”). The new lyrics, which Sandler released this week, include people like David Beckham (a quarter Jewish), Adam Levine, Jake Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson. Some of the rhymes are a little forced, a few syllables fudged her and there—21st century Adam lacks the careful wordsmithery of his ‘90’s incarnation—but it’s a worthy effort nonetheless. And thank God for that, because while Adam Sandler may be one of the biggest comedy stars of the last two decades, with mega-movies like The Wedding Singer and cult favorites like Happy Gilmore under his belt, I remain convinced that “The Chanukah Song” will prove one day to be his most lasting and important contribution to pop culture, and one that ushered in an entirely new age of Jewish comedy.
Prior to Sandler’s arrival on the scene (and specifically, the arrival of “The Chanukah Song” in 1994) mainstream Jewish comedy was basically about Jews (mostly men) struggling to fit into the gentile world around them. Think of the visual joke of Woody Allen placing himself next to a succession of willow-y WASP girlfriends, or even of George Costanza (who of course, was not Jewish at all, but “Tuscan”) blowing his top at the calumnies of injustice around him (why did nobody understand or see things the way he did?!) This brand of comedy, however hilarious, was presentational. Though it was funny to Jews, it designed for non-Jews: “Look how silly and harmless we Jews are! We’re just nebbish-y little men who can’t even use a toaster oven correctly! Don’t shoot!” This type of Jewish comedy wasn’t so much about being Jewish; it was an attempt to overcome the horrible obstacle of being Jewish, the neurosis, physical awkwardness, and sexual unattractiveness that was the inevitable legacy of millenniums of religious persecution.
Sandler, on the other hand, had a different approach entirely. From the opening verse of “The Chanukah Song”—“…so if you feel like the only kid in town / Without a Christmas tree / Here’s a list of people who are Jewish / Just like you and me…”—it’s clear that Sandler, unlike anyone who came before him, is speaking directly the Jewish kids out there that, having been one himself, he knows are listening. The song speaks perfectly to Jewish concerns: the sense of alienation and being second-best that is particularly acute during the holidays; the endless preoccupation with which celebrities might feel the same, but without angst and without any sense of shame. Sandler puts himself out there to be counted and he does the same with every person that he names. You’re not alone, he says. Being Jewish isn’t weird, or nerdy, or even undesirable. It just is, so let’s own it.
It was a sweetly radical message at the time, one that changed the attitude of thousands of children towards their religious identity. Without “The Chanukah Song,” there would be no Seth Rogen running through his latest movie in a festive blue-and-white sweater marked with a giant star of David. No The Goldbergs on TV. And this I can absolutely say with certainty: this column, such as it is, would not exist. Those are gifts that keep on giving long after the trees come down.
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