Adam Sandler performed an update of his “Chanukah Song” last month at the New York Comedy Festival, with a second performance in San Diego available on YouTube. The new rendition is the fourth version of the song he debuted in 1994 on Saturday Night Live, a song that is as much about Jewish identity as it is about the holiday.
Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” is not without its critics, however. In an editorial published in the New Jersey Jewish News last month, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Silow-Carroll of Teaneck, expresses much ambivalence about Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities. He worries that while it reflects a sense that it is cool to be Jewish, that coolness is a shallow expression of ethnic pride, lacking the depth of religious commitment.
In my view, Silow-Carroll sells Sandler short.
But first let me note that I agree with the general argument that Jewish identity ought to be based on something more than ethnic pride. If Jewish identity is reduced to ethnicity alone, it eventually will be lost within the great American melting pot. Think of how many Americans today claim to have a Native American great grandparent. But the key to understanding “The Chanukah Song” is not in the list of Jewish celebrities, even though that constitutes the main part of the song.
Steve Allen once observed that the comedian is usually a person with a grievance, and Sandler explained the grievance behind “The Chanukah Song” when he first introduced it on December 3, 1994. “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,’” he said then. And while Sandler goes on to say that he “wrote a brand new Chanukah song for you Jewish kids to sing,” in actuality the song actually has very little to do with the holiday.
Sandler does begin with a reference to religious tradition, as the first line of the song tells us to “put on your yarmulke,” and goes on to identify the holiday as the festival of lights. But for the most part, the connection to Chanukah is tangential, a list of famous people who are more or less Jewish, motivated by the mostly unstated implication that they also celebrate Chanukah instead of Christmas. In other words, the song is not about Chanukah itself, but rather about not celebrating Christmas, about feeling like “the only kid in town without a Christmas tree.” About feeling left out.
Certainly, the song’s appeal to ethnic pride is an effort to compensate for that sense of alienation, and there is something very Jewish about taking note when a prominent person is a member of the tribe. Indeed, doing so constitutes a link to our tribal roots, an expression of a group-centered communal sensibility, one that stands in marked contrast to the extreme individualism of American society. Moreover, it can serve not only as an expression of shared pride, but also of collective shame. For example, in the new version of the song Sandler expresses his disapproval of former Subway spokesperson and convicted sex offender Jared Fogle, and his disappointment that Fogle is Jewish.
To understand the peculiarity of American-Jewish life over the past century or more, it is helpful to consider how the equivalent of “The Chanukah Song” would work for other groups. A song pointing out the identity of African-Americans or Asian-Americans, for example, would seem pointless; it simply would state what is obvious to all. The same would be true, to a large extent, for a song about Italian-Americans naming Pacino, DeNiro, Stallone, DiCaprio, etc.; or for Hispanics naming Lopez, Garcia, Longoria, Montalban, etc. And yes, we have our Levines, Shapiros, and Cohens, but then there are also names like Gyllenhaal, Johansson, and LaBeouf, all named in Sandler’s recent update.
That Jewish identity is often not immediately apparent goes hand-in-hand with the fact that for most of the time, Jewish-Americans are privileged to feel and function as if we are part of mainstream American society. Even when we take off for Jewish holidays, fast on Yom Kippur, and avoid chametz on Passover, we may be diverging from the mainstream, but we do so by taking an alternate path, a detour, rather than running counter to its current. It is only at Christmastime that we find ourselves at odds with the vast majority of Americans and can feel like strangers in our native land.
And let’s be honest, generic phrases like “holiday season” and “season’s greetings” are essentially euphemisms for Christmas. The attempt to acknowledge that there is more than one holiday at this time of year essentially translates to “Christmas and others,” or more accurately “Christmases and others,” by which I mean not only the Orthodox Church’s Christmas that falls during the first week of January, but more importantly the distinction between the religious observance of the Christian holy day and what has become, for many, a secularized American holiday.
It is pointless to deny the power of secularized Christmas, whose elements include Christmas trees, magic snowmen and reindeer, elves, and of course Santa Claus as a figure akin to the tooth fairy. And Sandler doesn’t mention the fact that in an effort to avoid feeling left out, some Jews actually do celebrate some form of secularized Christmas.
While I don’t believe that Santa Claus ever can be fully separated from his origins as the Christian Saint Nicholas, or that Christmas ever can be the kind of pluralistic national holiday that Thanksgiving is, my point is not to criticize attempts to create a kosher Christmas. Rather, what I want to emphasize is that if it is possible for us to celebrate some form of secularized Christmas, then the decision not to celebrate Christmas becomes a conscious choice that we have to make, an act of resistance to the dominant culture, an affirmation of our group identity as a people, and most importantly, an affirmation of our faith.
The decision not to celebrate Christmas is much more than a matter of ethnic pride. It must be based on religion, and this is the underlying assumption of Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” and the point that Silow-Carroll misses. We are defined by what we are not, as well as by what we are. Admittedly, it is not enough to define ourselves against others. We also have to define ourselves positively, by our beliefs and practices. But we should understand the hidden ground of faith behind Sandler’s humor.
We should also understand the grievance behind the song, stemming from a sense of isolation that may be felt only or much more acutely at this time of year. Sandler’s song counters isolation through the creation of a sense of connection, achieved by naming others who are “just like you and me.” What he gives us is an imaginary community of people who are known to us, but who do not know us in return. In doing so, he points the way to the real solution, which is to seek out a real sense of community, something we can only find through our Jewish congregations, synagogues, and community centers.