The premise was simple: a list pointing out recognizable Jewish celebrities to help kids feel less alone during the holiday season. But for many, “The Chanukah Song” isn’t just a silly Saturday Night Live bit thrown in for the sake of diversity — it has become a cultural anthem that validates our feelings of alienation and mediates them with our unique brand of humor.
Watch Weekend Update: Adam Sandler on Hanukkah from Saturday Night Live on NBC.com
After noticing a lack of Hanukkah tunes, Adam Sandler decided to sing a Hanukkah song about all the famous Jewish…
Adam Sandler premiered the song during SNL’s Weekend Update on December 3rd, 1994, which happened to be on the 7th night of Chanukah. It was short, funny, but probably thought to be inconsequential at the time: just another bit with Sandler playing guitar and singing in weird voices. I’m sure they had no idea what kind of role it would end up playing in 21st century Jewish culture.
Yet for the Jewish 20-somethings of today, “The Chanukah Song” is our most-loved emblem of the holiday. I was born in 1994, the year that the song came out, so I’ve grown up with it being the definitive soundtrack to the 8-day holiday that every Jewish kid has had mixed feelings about at some point. And anyone around my age feels the same way. It’s our mating call: if you yell “O.J. Simpson…” in a crowd, the ones that respond with a resounding “NOT a Jew!” are your people.
How exactly did this song become so important? Well on a surface level, it filled the gaping hole left by the complete lack of fun, festive, and modern Chanukah-themed songs. Before Sandler blessed us, we had a grand total of two popular ones, and if we’re being honest, they leave much to be desired. “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Oh Chanukah” make a good effort, but fizzle out pretty quickly. More importantly, they’re unmistakably dated, with traditional instruments and vocals. Not exactly the kind of thing you might try to sneak into a holiday playlist inundated with catchy, spirited Christmas songs performed by the popular artists of today. As a music business person, I understand why a great deal of effort hasn’t been poured into producing the next chart-topping Chanukah anthem: the market isn’t big enough and even if it were, the demand isn’t either. Us Jews had long accepted our musical fate, some even fully embracing Christmas songs during the season just to evoke a festive vibe in our houses.
Enter Sandler and the song that we didn’t even know we were waiting for. “The Chanukah Song” is no virtuosic masterpiece by any means — Adam Sandler strumming a guitar, listing names, and rhyming “gin and tonic-ah” with “marijuan-ica” isn’t exactly Grammy material. But it was something. And for those who have grown up with it, we have gladly embraced it.
But beyond just satisfying our need for a new tune, “The Chanukah Song” spoke to all of us on a profound level, surely deeper than Sandler had ever intended to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my religion and culture, but if I’m being honest, it is kind of a bummer being Jewish around the holiday season. We’re bombarded by joyful, wholesome images and messages celebrating a holiday we’re not a part of. It’s not offensive, but it sure is alienating. And like Sandler says in the beginning of the song, we’ve all felt like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree. For once, it was nice to have someone recognize that, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug with a hastily uttered “oh, and uh, uh…happy holidays.”
Just like our people, it doesn’t dwell too long on the negative. The song goes on to creatively name prominent public figures who we probably had no idea were Jewish. Remember, this was before the time of listicles and Wikipedia pages. Now, you can easily google “famous Jewish people” or follow social media accounts that specialize in Jewish visibility. But before that, it wasn’t as easy to find this information, and with the Jewish identity not always obvious by physical characteristics alone, finding out your favorite celebrity is a positive representation of you and your culture was a total surprise, if it ever happened at all. So for me and my fellow tribe members who grew up with “The Chanukah Song” as a musical predecessor of the eventual 18 Celebrities You Probably Didn’t Know Were Jewish listicle, this was a way we could see ourselves in the athletes, musicians, and actors that we already knew and loved.
In the year 2016, the year of “realizing stuff,” representation for all identities has become a hot topic in discussions on how to improve our media and our society as a whole. I’m glad to see the strides that have been made, but as always, there is a long way to go before our TV shows, movies, and music accurately reflect the diversity of our culture. The enduring legacy of “The Chanukah Song,” a SNL joke that has grown to be a beloved and crucial aspect of 21st century Jewish culture, is a case study in the importance of representation and how much it can mean to those watching and listening.
My family is a prime example of the modern American reform Jew identity. All of us were bar/bat mitzvahed, but ask us if we understood a word we said during those ceremonies and we’ll call you meshugenah. I grew up watching Seinfeld instead of Sesame Street. We don’t *really* keep kosher, but accidentally sprinkle bacon bits on our salad and you’ll be met with an indignant “EXCUSE ME, WE’RE JEWISH.” And yeah, at this point of our lives, we celebrate Festivus more religiously than anything else in December. I don’t think we’ve even plugged in our electric menorah this year.
But for this 22 year-old, the 22 year-old “Chanukah Song” still holds a great deal of importance. It celebrates our holiday, acknowledges and validates common feelings of alienation, and helps us feel a little less alone during the month of December. It gave us all a way to see ourselves in pop culture in a way that we had never been able to before. And most importantly, it serves as a great example of the power of representation and a reminder to continue to strive for it in all forms of media, for all types of identities.
Thanks, Adam Sandler. You’re a real mensch.