By Stephen Whitfield/JNS
In 2004 a seminar was offered on American Jewish culture at the University of Munich; the students were required to present their research on a representative Jewish figure who has made a significant contribution to the arts or to thought in the U.S. As the instructor, I asked the first Bavarian-based student who came to my office to indicate her choice of a topic, and was stunned by her selection: “Adam Sandler.”
The comic actor is almost certainly better known for “The Chanukah Song” than for any of the three-dozen movies in which he has starred. It premiered on a December 1994 show of Saturday Night Live and drew popular attention to a holiday that, only a decade earlier, had inspired President Ronald Reagan to express his pleasure in looking out at Lafayette Park and seeing “the huge menorah, celebrating the Passover season.”
The popularity of Sandler’s song can be gauged by setting it off against two other recent musical efforts to pump meaning into the festival. In 1983 folksinger Peter Yarrow tapped into his own secular Jewish heritage when Peter, Paul and Mary performed a “Holiday Celebration” at Carnegie Hall. In “Light One Candle” Yarrow asked listeners to light a taper “for the terrible sacrifice/Justice and freedom demand/But light one candle for the wisdom to know/When the peacemaker’s time is at hand.” But seven years later the idealism marking much of Jewish politics would give way to satire, when Tom Lehrer invoked Chanukah in southern California, “wearing sandals/Lighting candles/By the sea.” Luckily for him, the holiday rhymed with Santa Monica, just as the demographic shift to the Sunbelt ensured that fewer and fewer Jews would be celebrating “Shavuos in East St. Louis.” The comforts of California even led Lehrer to wonder at the imaginary reaction of “Judas Maccabeus/Boy, if he could see us.”
But compared to “The Chanukah Song,” Yarrow’s denunciation of injustice came across as too earnest for popular taste. Compared to the moral fervor of “Light One Candle,” Sandler’s song is downright silly. Compared to the cleverness of “I’m Spending Chanukah in Santa Monica,” Sandler’s list song is amateurish and trite.
“The Chanukah Song” nevertheless caught on. It’s a reasonable guess that Sandler wasn’t trying to emulate Cole Porter. But when celebrities are more familiar than any author or politician, they are recognizable in a way that no religious authority can hope to match. “The Chanukah Song” is therefore the soundtrack to historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s famous definition of fame, which is bestowed on people well-known for their well-knownness.
In taking for granted the authority of celebrity, “The Chanukah Song” addresses the emotional need for Yuletide solace. For children feeling estranged during the season, Sandler offers a comic affirmation intended—quite honorably—to assuage the psychic pain of feeling excluded. Irving Berlin turned Christmas into a holiday more meteorological than theological, that recalls the excitement of snow but neglects to mention the birth of Christ. “White Christmas” (1942) became the most recorded song in history. Sandler is (characteristically) less subtle in confronting what membership in a religious minority imposes. But he did know how to touch a tender place in the heart of the American Jewish family, at a season of special vulnerability.
Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University and is the author of In Search of American Jewish Culture.