While it’s fair to say pop culture contains more Christmas songs than ones about the Festival of Lights, it’s also fair to say Christmas songwriters have seriously hit a wall, as almost all popular carols were penned during the 1700s and 1800s. Not the case for Hanukkah tunesmiths, who have only begun to flourish over the past century.
To commemorate the more than 2,000-year anniversary of the nation of Israel’s reclamation of Jerusalem’s second Holy Temple at the start of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire — and that miracle where the oil lasted for eight nights instead the projected one — we present a diverse selection of gems from the holiday’s new musical gestalt.
“The Chanukah Song” I, II, III and IV
With his “Chanukah Song” tetralogy (yes, four different renditions released over a 21-year period, listing 93 different Jews and gentiles, save for Neil Diamond), Adam Sandler has truly served the challah down to the crumbs. The right was earned though, as the OG acoustic version, written in 1994 with Saturday Night Live staffers Ian Maxtone-Graham and Lewis Morton for the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, has become the undisputed abba (Hebrew for father) of modern Hanukkah songs. It even sold, having risen that year to No. 25 on the Billboard Alternative Charts — no small feat in an era when true alternative rock ruled everything.
Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song, Part II” was recorded live at Brandeis University for his 1999 album Stan and Judy’s Kid. He upped the game with a full band and audience before 2002’s “The Chanukah Song, Part III,” which was taken from the Eight Crazy Nights soundtrack. Sandler swung for the fences by adding an electric guitar, Rob Schneider and 22-piece children’s choir The Drei-Dels. “The Chanukah Song, Part IV”, tracked in 2015 for an enormous theatre audience who reacts like the Beatles’ Shea Stadium crowd, strips it back to acoustic and keyboard — but still contains no mention of Neil Diamond.
Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings
“8 Days (of Hanukkah)”
For those into the reborn-Motown sound, the late Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings’ “8 Days (of Hanukkah)” is a perennial soul jam that teaches the holiday with cozy analog vibes and an animated Schoolhouse Rock-style video. Born in James Brown’s hometown of North Augusta, South Carolina, and raised in New York near a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, Jones, who is not Jewish, worked stints as a Rikers Island corrections officer and Wells Fargo armored car guard before a chance meeting with Daptones Records founder (and Dap Kings bandleader) Gabriel Roth led to the release of her first record at age 40. She and the Kings spent the following 20 years propelling the new-soul revival alongside label mates the Menahan Street Band, Charles Bradley and the El Michaels Affair, before her tragic passing from pancreatic cancer in 2016.
“Hanukkah (Favorite Time of the Year)”
Significantly less freaky and explicit than 90% of Too $hort songs, it’s not exactly clear why the West Coast rap legend chose to tackle this subject. That being said, the gentile also known as $hort Dogg doesn’t completely abandon his craft, speaking of spending time “With some Jewish girl, pinchin tuchus,” telling no one in particular “this ain’t Passover…now move that ass over,” and ending his secular psalm with “Me, K.B. Harvey and Judah macked a bitch.” Interestingly enough, the only internet mention of a K.B. Harvey is a University of British Columbia researcher with a highly-lauded article on the “Infrared and Raman Spectra of Potassium and Sodium Borohydride” published by the Canadian Journal of Chemistry. Who Judah is remains to be seen, but for anyone working together with Too $hort and K.B. the neutron don, performing a triple-mack at a holiday party seems completely feasible.
“The Hanukkah Song”
In 2004, Jewish-Australian pop-punkers YIDcore, a land down under Sum 41 known for their hardcore covers of traditional Jewish and Israeli songs, transformed Sandler’s version into an aggressive, speedy shout-along of Jews crucial to the genre (including Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, “most of The Dictators,” “Sid Vicious’ manager”). For aspiring young Judaic thrashers, the song is a splendid demonstration of the cherished punk tradition of mainstream repurposing, that teaches as it screeches. Released on YIDcore’s The Adam Slander E.P., with its cover featuring Adam choking a (“the”) chicken, this one’s all sorts of warm, fun and fuzzy.
Though not too different from most songs in the Guthrie canon, Woody’s “Hanuka Dance” is still a quintessential merrymaker from an American legend. Essentially an acoustic freestyle children’s song, it’s brief, liturgy-free and a little silly — “Tippy tap toe, my little shtroodler…skippy skip skip, my little fruitycake” — with enough energy to send kids running circles around a coffee table.
Though Woody wasn’t Jewish, the song — one of his over 3,000 — was written for his second wife (whose mother was an accomplished Yiddish poet and songwriter in Coney Island), and their four children, including Arlo Guthrie, all of whom were of the faith.
The Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles
“(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica”
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles’ rendition of Tom Lehrer’s “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica” is a 99-member chorale version of the American satirist-slash-Harvard mathematician’s jollified sing-along, originally written in the early ’90s for Garrison Keillor’s radio show, “The American Radio Company.”
A fine holiday show tune by itself, the GMCLA’s take on what Lehrer called a West Coast “sort of answer to ‘White Christmas’” requires the video for full appreciation, featuring a mass choreography rarely found in standing chorus settings.
Erran Baron Cohen
From the elder brother of comic Sacha Baron Cohen comes a Yiddish rap version of the traditional “Dreidel Song”, a number that co-founder of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation Josh Kun calls “an attempt to reinterpret Jewish tradition…in the spirit of Friday night at the club.”
Taken from Erran’s 2008 album Songs in the Key of Hanukkah, the “Dreidel” video features two Hasids flexing Beastie Boys moves on a rooftop, spray painting Hebrew letters on a wall between dreidel tosses. While the music is pretty modest — a formal composer with ASCAP awards for his work on “Bruno” and “Borat,” Erran rouses far less rabble than his brother — it is still a fresh spin on a classic that Jewish elders and purists can get down with, presumably more so than Too $hort’s triple-mack tuchus attack.
“The Hanukkah Song”
Let us reiterate: Throughout Adam Sandler’s four versions of “The Chanukah Song,” there are mentions of 93 famous Jews and gentiles — somehow none of which are Neil Diamond, perhaps one of the most famous Jews in showbiz. Surely in retaliation for not making the cut, the Jewish Elvis and former Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba jacked the original for a cover, which was released on Diamond’s 2009 holiday album A Cherry, Cherry Christmas.
This shiny FM-mall-rock version includes a wank shred solo from Ashba and a PSA flip of Sandler’s cannabis big-up, which Diamond makes “so drink your gin and tonicah/don’t smoke your marijuanikah.” Alright, the jig is up. We’re just kidding, this one is pretty lame. The real reason this version made the list is the song’s South Park-ety music video that inexplicably features Tom Cruise floating in a crucifixion pose in front of a cross with blood-stained nails, which is some pretty forward-thinking and ballsy stuff that could’ve gotten Diamond assassinated by Scientology.