Monday, November 29, 2004

Hanukkah is too holy to be known primarily for sarcastic pop music, says the founder of an Orthodox Jewish Web site, who wants to reclaim the holiday from Hollywood.

Although the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights does not begin until sundown December 7, Binyamin Jolkovsky, 35, of is spearheading an effort to depose a pop song composed in 1996 by “Saturday Night Live” comedy idol Adam Sandler.

Simply named “The Hanukkah Song,” and revised since its debut, the song is played widely on local rock stations such as WARW 94.7 FM. In 2002, it was featured on “Eight Crazy Nights,” a made-for-TV Hanukkah movie.

Its irreverent lyrics suggest the holiday should be shared with a gin and tonic and lists movie stars, athletes, politicians and other celebrities as being Jewish.

“When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree,” the song says, “here’s a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me.”

Mr. Jolkovsky calls the song — and others like it — an “embarrassment.”

“Hanukkah is about a lot more than menorahs or potato latkes,” he says. “It’s childish when you take a minority that doesn’t take itself seriously and then you see what they’re offering.”

Others say the schmaltz has its place.

“Christmas music is so everywhere during this season that Sandler had to be over the top as a song of rebellion,” says Yosef Abramowitz, chief executive officer of Newton, Mass.-based Jewish Family and Life. “Sandler’s song is the default song. People should be happy it’s made it into the mainstream. You’re not going to have regular Hanukkah music make it onto the rock music stations.”

So Mr. Abramowitz is agitating for a Jewish category in the Grammy awards, similar to six already existing pop Christian and gospel categories.

“In terms of Jewish music, there’s either ‘Hava Nagilah’ on one end and Adam Sandler on the other,” he said. “Actually there’s great religious rock in Judaism. People just don’t know that.”

On December 7, his organization premieres the print version of JVibe, a teen magazine devoted to a pop Jewish culture. Some of the young people who have embraced this culture term themselves “Hebsters,” while others wear the word “Jewcy” emblazoned across T-shirts, follow pop star Madonna’s fixation with the mystic Jewish writings of the Kabbalah and consider Mr. Sandler a guiding angel.

“With Jews, the religion does not proselytize, so it’s a different phenomenon to have anything in-your-face about Judaism,” says Jon Steingart, co-founder of, a Manhattan-based Web site that markets clothing and theater events, and posts news items about Jews.

“The last time people had to be wearing anything that proclaimed them as Jews, it was a death sentence, so this is a backlash,” he added. “Jews are very assimilated into American culture, and now, it’s exciting to proclaim yourself as Jewish.”

Ira Miller, youth director for the Washington Hebrew Congregation, says no one he knows takes offense at the Sandler song.

“There’s humor in it,” he said, “also some Jewish pride. The kids definitely know it. It has nothing to do with Hanukkah, but it’s more about cool people who are Jewish.”

If it’s other Jews delivering the self-deprecating humor, he adds, it’s not a problem. In fact, last year a Jewish hip-hop group called Outkast released “Hanukkah Hey Ya,” also a holiday parody song.

But parody runs counter to the real reason behind the season, Mr. Jolkovsky says, which celebrates religious freedom.

The holiday commemorates the Maccabee rebellion in 165 B.C. against Israel’s Hellenistic Syrian occupiers. When the Maccabees rededicated their temple, only one cruse of sacramental oil was found. Only supposed to last one day, it miraculously burned for eight, during which time other oil was prepared.

For this reason, Jews light candles for eight nights in a row on a menorah candelabra.

Mr. Jolkovsky’s solution: Replace the Sandler song with a slightly older piece, “Color Candles,” released in 1985 and composed by Eli Nathan. The song wistfully creates a portrait of an entire neighborhood candlelit by menorahs placed on the windowsills of assimilated Jewish residents.

“I’m encouraging people to light menorahs in their windows, not hidden in the kitchen or the library someplace,” Mr. Jolkovsky said. “The idea of Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle. Most American Jews don’t do that.”

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