Since Adam Sandler debuted “The Chanukah Song” in December 1994 on Saturday Night Live, the Jewish holiday song market has been cornered by one man and one man only. Sure, the song is next to unimpeachable: the verses read like a who’s-who of Jewish entertainers, even offering some interesting hypothetical couplings: “Paul Newman’s half Jewish, Goldie Hawn half too / Put them together, what a fine lookin’ Jew!” But it’s striking that no artist has even come close to besting him: Matisyahu’s music grapples with the Jewish experience in America and abroad, but his songs feel less suited to lighting the candles than reminding yourself during the last hour before Yom Kippur dinner that there’s something more painful than fasting.
With Verve’s Hanukkah+ compilation (spelled in the decidedly goyim fashion), a whole new batch of artists has entered the desperately bereft Jewish holiday canon. Combining originals and covers, it’s a valiant effort, with Jewish artists like Jack Black, the women of HAIM, and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan leading the charge. Music supervisor power player Randall Poster oversaw its creation, drawing inspiration from the latter band’s famous Chanukah shows in Hoboken. Adam Green of Moldy Peaches makes an appearance, and the gentile Wayne Coyne pops in with his band, the Flaming Lips. It’s a heartwarming contemplation of a holiday that is often misunderstood—and a loving tribute to the sense of humor at the heart of Jewish cultural identity, one that’s at once deeply self-deprecating and fiercely defensive of the things we mock about ourselves.
Not surprisingly, it’s the non-Jewish Loudon Wainwright III who probably sums up the appeal of Chanukah best. He opens his composition “Eight Nights a Week” with a question, a warning of sorts: “Shall I sing you a song about something / Something about which I don’t know?” He later mentions how since he’s a third, you can likely surmise he’s not Jewish. But the real gem comes in the third verse, where he leans in to the argument Jewish kids typically use on the playground when explaining why the holiday is far superior to Christmas: “Christmas morning kids open their presents / Loop-tied under a lit tree / But Jewish kids can’t peek for their eight nights a week / That seems less fraud and more fun to me.” As idiot poet laureate Adam Sandler once said, “Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights!”
Loudon does his thing over some ragtime swing; indeed, one of the most striking things about Hanukkah+ is the diversity of styles its contributors bring to the table. Jack Black’s proggy opener, “Oh Hanukkah,” is by turns creepy, sexy, boozy, schmaltzy, clever, slimy, catchy, and sinful—at once an introduction to the rituals of Chanukah and a bombastic reframing of a classic Jewish tune. When he backs up lines like “And while we are playing, the candles are burning low,” with a choir, it sounds like one of the School of Rock kids railed a bunch of speed during Torah study and then was asked to recite a prayer. All this happens in under two minutes. It’s grating, but pretty perfect too.
Yo La Tengo’s “Eight Candles” is a clear standout, which makes when you consider that this is what they do. It sounds like a folk band covering a lounge jazz standard, with alien synths and near-whispered vocals enveloping the entire enterprise in an aura of mystery and invitation. The big grab here, though, is HAIM’s downtempo, contemplative rendition of “If It Will Be Your Will,” a Leonard Cohen tune based on a saying that accompanies many Jewish prayers. Whereas other songs dabble in tradition, silliness, and the perceived spectacle of the holiday, it’s one of the album’s more straightforwardly spiritual moments, grounded in multi-part harmonies and barely-there guitar picking. It’s less a “Jewish” song per se than an ode to the awe and wonder that can arise when you connect to a presence larger than yourself—regardless of creed. But it’s also the sort of song that makes you proud to be Jewish.
Somewhat predictably, Wayne Coyne and co. seem to have taken the whole Chanukah prompt and made it about themselves, drowning “Sing it Now, Sing it Somehow’s” message in traditional Flaming bells and anthemic choruses. When participating in a themed compilation, one always has to strike a balance between faithfulness to the prompt and artistic self-expression, but the Flaming Lips have never dealt in subtlety. Wayne Coyne got married in an inflatable ball, for god's sake.
Perhaps this collection is the start of a much necessary revision of Chanukah’s musical lineage. Maybe it’s not. At the very least, it’s an important reminder that being Jewish isn’t only okay, it freaking rules. As hate crimes towards minorities continue to rise in this country and neo-Nazi rhetoric (some of which comes from Jews!) wafts up from the darkest recesses of the Internet to the highest halls of power, it feels like a dark time to be the chosen people. A Chanukah compilation from a variety of successful acts doesn’t do anything to erase that feeling of dread, but it does feel nice to be seen, acknowledged, and celebrated. While not every song on this record is worth revisiting, it’s an excellent addition to the holiday. At the very least, now we have a song for each night.