An Ode to the Hanukkah Comedy Song

How one very niche genre of music taught me to be a funny Jew.

Before the rise of bluetooth, three albums reigned supreme in my family’s zip-case of CDs: Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, and Adam Sandler’s hit single, “The Chanukah Song.” I cannot remember the first time I listened to any of these songs, which means they are, for better or worse, integral parts of my cultural consciousness as a descendant of the noble lines of New Jersey Jew and Long Island Jew.

Especially, of course, “The Chanukah Song.”

Despite clocking maybe 20 percent of the references — it would take years for “marijuanikah” to land — my sisters and I memorized the lyrics and played all four installments of the song year-round. Such an early exposure to this musical version of the Wikipedia Early Life section (AKA the Jewish homeland) left me feeling seen in a world where “Ma’oz Tzur” doesn’t make the cut for strip mall holiday playlists. The lyrics would rest, dormant in the back of my brain, until I’d learn about, say, O.J. Simpson and could mentally counter with “Not! A! Jew!”

Thus began my active investment in the ancient, sacred Jewish tradition of making people laugh by way of neurotic, sardonic, pop culture obsession-driven comedy. Adam Sandler, the man my generation knows and loves for pissing in the amusement park pool in Grown Ups 2, taught me that if I can see something and point it out so someone else notices, I could be funny, too.

Having grown up so deeply immersed in cultural Judaism, it’s hard to recognize qualities like my sense of humor as the very obvious outpourings of my Jewish identity that they are. I’d go to Shabbat services for the Hebrew school requirement, but kept coming back for the material. I had to count how many times the octogenarian Torah chanter cleared his throat because he needed a breather. I needed to see what color satin suit and matching brooch Sheila would wear.

But I’d do that kind of thing everywhere. My middle school, where b’nai mitzvah swag from the weekend was forbidden the following Monday, felt just as Jewish as a synagogue.

In fact, the only part of my upbringing that wasn’t aggressively Jewish were the songs I sang in choir. Each winter, we’d hurriedly prepare a new slate of repertoire for the holiday concert. The religiosity ran the gamut from intense Latin masses to crisp British carols to an ill-advised vocal jazz “Santa Baby,” but it was all very Christmas-heavy. While I cannot deny how fun that music is to sing, the meager Hanukkah selections made me glad to have Adam Sandler in my corner.

Apart from the handful of pieces that vaguely reference glowing candles and my very on-the-nose senior year solo (a Yiddish lullaby arrangement inspired by Schindler’s List), the Jewish choir market is relatively sparse.

Luckily, we have Hanukkah comedy songs, the perfect answer to anyone’s ambivalence about being a mostly assimilated American Jew during the inescapably capitalist yet nevertheless jolly Christmas season. They’re the soundtrack to feeling simultaneously proud of holiday sale hunting and guilty for supporting big businesses. Adam Sandler’s approach is a reassuring message of inclusion for people like my uncle, who successfully lobbied for a Hanukkah bush as a child and now has secular twinkle lights on the trees in his backyard.

And it’s not just Adam Sandler. There’s Suck It, Christmas, the album for people whose moms, like mine, viciously mock Hanukkah bushes everywhere and instill in their children the belief that the only acceptable bat mitzvah theme is Judaism. Written by co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Rachel Bloom along with Jack Dolgen and (Rachel’s husband) Dan Gregor, parodies such as “Chanukah Honey” (“You got your M.B.A. from Penn, amen”), vogue tributes to worldwide Judaica shopping, and audio of the Elders of Zion bickering about parking spots make this album a complete game changer.

I first listened to Suck It, Christmas during a free period in high school. I held my phone’s speaker up to my ear and tried not to let on that I was being introduced to mythical creatures such as “foreskin angels” and the Woody Allen lookalikes who drag God’s sleigh through the sky. The songs go past giving the listener a mostly accurate list of famous Jews; the entire album unpacks the ridiculous mess of feelings that tend to come along with the holiday season.

Bloom (and Dolgen and Gregor) taught me that Hanukkah comedy, and thus comedy in general, can be more than a consolation prize. It’s the only proven treatment for feeling left out of Christmas and then immediately experiencing a wave of guilt about feeling left out of Christmas. More importantly, it can heal, and it can bring us together.

If you need proof, look no further than Daveed Diggs’ absolute masterpiece “Puppy for Hanukkah.” Between the fusion of hip hop and klezmer, hilarious lyrics, and the tiny children and puppies in the music video, this recent addition to the Hanukkah comedy song canon is the miracle we never knew we needed.

So this Hanukkah, as you’re frustratedly deleting promotional emails from stores in between family Zooms or nursing the inevitable splatter burn from making latkes (just me?), put on a Hanukkah comedy song. It won’t illuminate the answer to your latest mental dialectic, and it won’t hit like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which I listened to while writing this. That said, it might make you feel a little less alone.

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