Not Kansas: Judah Maccabee, Latkes and Adam Sandler

Hanuka is a holiday of songs. Do you know any by heart? And in general, what’s your opinion on the lyrics of modern songs in today’s culture? Do you find them shallow? Deep? Meaningful? Silly?

Just remember: some songs aren’t meant to be deep. And sometimes silly lyrics can have deep messages hidden inside.

Who can forget those amazing Hanuka lyrics?

“Each Hanuka we glorify brave Judah Maccabeus who had the courage to defy Antiochus, and FREE us. Yet it is not fair that we should forget Mrs. Maccabeus, whom we owe a DEBT. She  MIXED it, and FIXED it, she POURed it into a bowl. You may NOT guess, but it was the LATkes that gave brave Judah a soul.”

Admittedly, that song is a mixture of fact and fiction. It may even perpetuate old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But there’s a story there, at least a nucleus of one, and when it rhymes and goes to music, kids get a piece of Hanuka engraved into their minds. And in an age when it’s hard to get kids’ attention on any subject, that is a task which is no laughing matter.

So…yes, Antiochus was a Greek-Syrian tyrant who did not allow the Jews in the Land of Israel freedom of religious practice. Judah Maccabee and his father and his brothers, led the miraculous revolt that brought back freedom to the people and the land. To make the message relevant, we eat today special foods that remind us of something that happened over 2,000 years ago. Most of us love food, right? So why not sing a song that can be served at the meal like a side dish? Food that’s ethnic and has a story and traditions connected to it can be a wonderful and long-lasting device to “keep the fire lit.” And oil can be food as well as a light-source (and many feel that fire has “spiritual” properties), and that reminds us of yet another Hanuka miracle: the olive oil lasting eight entire days, more than anybody thought possible.

I’m guessing that most folks today know the lyrics to Adam Sandler’s song better than the ol’ Judah Maccabeus song. But Adam’s song has no meat and potatoes about Hanuka inside. It contains references to drugs and alcohol, private body parts of humans, as well as celebrities and cultural icons whose behavior might not be educational at all. It even has references to negative Jewish stereotypes. What can be possibly redeeming by singing about famous people and relating to them only on the basis of their being Jewish or not? (or half, or even a quarter, which actually, when you think about it, isn’t too shabby.)

But there’s something to be said about instilling Jewish pride in people who perhaps were embarrassed about it beforehand. This song might be reaching folks who never in a million years would learn a Maccabeus song. And in between the lines, there’s another message there: “Hey, America, with Christmas-influenced culture and shopping behavior: there are minorities out here that have different beliefs! And it’s not easy for us to keep our beliefs when there’s overt and covert pressure to conform! If it was easy, we wouldn’t have to sing this song…”

And there’s more. Anybody can become Jewish. And once you’re Jewish, nobody can take that away from you. Nobody. Ever. At Livnot we discuss this issue often. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can say: “I’m Jewish no matter what I do or how I act, and that’s fine with me. I don’t really want to make an effort to grow Jewishly, because anyway it won’t have an effect on my being Jewish or not. I am going to exercise my right of being Jewish by birth only and not by action taken, values held, or traditions followed.”

But on the other hand, you can also say: “I’m re-evaluating my relationship to my religion. I used to think that if I don’t do anything Jewish in my life, then I have lost my Jewishness and there’s simply no way I can get it back. But now that I know that I’m still Jewish, I can take a new look at Judaism and reclaim it in the way that fits me. And there’s no statute of limitations or ‘you’ve gone so far away that you’ll never find the way back.’ ”

All this…from a silly song.

Then there’s ‘Gangham Style’ by PSY, a South Korean pop group. I apologize to those readers for whom the very mention of this creation is an affront to their taste/style/standard. But we’re talkin’ hundreds of millions of hits. And the lyrics? Hmmm. Let’s see. “A girl who is warm and humane during the day.  A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee. A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes. A girl with that kind of twist.

I’m a guy. A guy who is as warm as you during the day. A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down. A guy whose heart bursts when night comes. That kind of guy.”

Raise your hand right now if you’ve seen this video more than once. Raise both hands if you’ve tried dancing the dance. (Personally, I neither admit nor deny this claim.)

But, as surprising as it may sound, many Korean pundits feel the lyrics to this song are a very serious (although hidden) commentary on the lifestyle of the super-wealthy Korean elite. Classy is not just classy, coffee is not just coffee, and warm and cold are not just temperatures.

After reading about Korean society, especially the nouveau riche neighborhood of Gangham, many of the words (as well as scenes in the clip) are actually very pointed critiques about over-the-top materialism.

Let’s not go overboard: there’s nothing wrong with seeking out cultural excellence! But we should be careful before criticizing certain kinds of “opium of the masses.” Important values and lofty ideals are often hiding where you least expect them.

Is this not one of the messages of Hanuka?

Hanuka – the holiday centered around the Land of Israel (aside from Tu B’Shvat, it’s our only holiday that actually “took place” in this land), as well as the holiday of olive oil produced from our native olive trees.

The olive tree – the one tree in the land whose fruit cannot be eaten right off the tree. The one tree

in the land that is…hiding. With its mouth-watering inedible fruit, it seems to be screaming at us:

“What you see is NOT what you get!” The one tree in the land that has a fascinating idea enveloped inside of it: Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a person by their outer shell.

I believe that most people are much more amazing than we think they are. And that’s true for silly pop songs, too. So…peel, my friends, peel! Onions and ogres have layers, and so do olives. And so do people, and so do values.

So keep your eyes open. And while you’re at it, tell your friend Veronica.

Happy Hanuka,


Meir Paltiel
Meir Paltiel
[email protected]

Originally from Syracuse, NY, Meir received his BA in American History and Political Science from Tulane University and his MS in Resource Management from SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. He arrived in Israel in 1992, served in the Nahal Infantry Unit before moving to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. On Kibbutz, Meir was Assistant Manager of the... Read More