Pop Culture Hanukkah

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For many Americans — even those who have sworn off airings of It's a Wonderful Life — the holiday season is crowded with pop CDs, TV specials and 24 hour holiday-music radio; in short, a nearly limitless array of festive Santa-tainment options. Traditionally, for those who celebrate Hanukkah, which started at dusk on Dec. 21, artistic representation has been harder to find. The comparatively minor Jewish holiday has long been inflated to match the commercial allure of Christmas (itself a day so far separated from its original religious meaning that the Puritans banned it in the 17th century). But in the past decade Hanukkah has taken on a higher cultural profile thanks to a growing number of actors, comedians, musicians and marketers who want kids to know that it's cool to spin a dreidel. Earlier this month a rare national TV special exclusively dedicated to the holiday, Lights! Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert, aired on PBS, featuring performances by musicians like Dave Koz, actress-singer Mare Winningham and the Klezmatics.

The turning point for Hanukkah's rise in pop culture visibility can be traced back to 1995 and Adam Sandler's hilarious, if now overplayed, "Chanukah Song" (a musical version of a time-honored Jewish pastime — identifying other Jews). "When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree, here's a list of people who are Jewish [like Paula Abdul, Kirk Douglas and David Lee Roth], just like you and me..." The underwhelming musical quality of the goofy ditty was beside the point. But the media attention the song received — an actor celebrating Hanukkah? — paved the way for more writers and artists to be loud and proud about their Jewishness. A couple of years later, the humorously juvenile Comedy Central series South Park weighed in with an episode in which Kyle Broflovski, a Jewish kid exasperated by the holiday season, singing "A Jew on Christmas." "I'm a Jew, a lonely Jew, I'd be merry, but I'm Hebrew, on Christmas... Hanukkah is nice but why is it that Santa passes over my house every year? And ... what the f--- is up with lighting all these candles tell me please?"

The 2000s answered with a flood of Festival of Lights extravaganzas. Sandler's critically panned animated 2002 film, Eight Crazy Nights, was a cult hit, while a cool kids' film, Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball, targeted the 6 and under set. The beautiful teenagers of The O.C. came up with an all-inclusive holiday, much like Seinfeld's Festivus, called Chrismukkah. Jewish hipsters gathered to watch rockers like Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrell toast Hanukkah at the now-annual New York City event, A Jewcy Hanukkah. The punk-pop band the LeeVees formed specifically to "spread Hanukkah cheer" and released the 2005 CD, Hanukkah Rocks! Last year the LeeVees joined the Boston Pops in Boston's Symphony Hall, singing songs like Latke Clan and How Do You Spell Chanukah, backed by a 100-piece orchestra.

Sandler's song notwithstanding, few Hanukkah productions have come close to matching the enduring status of A Charlie Brown Christmas — but the holiday is increasingly spreading its Jewish joy to the world. Last month, thinking woman's heartthrob Jon Stewart appeared on Stephen Colbert's Christmas TV special and meekly sang the tune, Can I Interest You in Hanukkah? Whether the answer from most viewers was yes or no, at least Kyle can tell his South Park buddies it's getting a little less lonely to be a Jew on Christmas.