Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Assimilating Chanukah: On Maccabeats and other curiosities

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2010 at 11:06 am

Either Jews spend a disproportionate amount of time on Youtube, or Chanukah has gone mainstream. I’m referring, of course, to the YU Maccabeats viral hit candlelight. Years ago, The Berman Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, was playing the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School on the first night of Chanukah.  Before the game, the host team lit candles, said blessings and sang the Chanukah anthem Ma’oz Tzur. Immediately following the ritual, a pulsing pop tune came blaring out of the PA system where members from both teams were introduced with great fanfare. I’m thinking, here we are in a gymnasium, with boys dressed in shorts and tank tops playing basketball on Chanukah. Does it get more Greek than this? Our zealous ancestors would have bombed the place with Mattathias chanting to the crowd, “Whomever is for the Lord, follow me!” I was alone in seeing the irony, oh well.

Now, the YU a capella group puts new lyrics to a snappy tune the lyrics of which sings of all the traditional Chanukah tropes. Even though most of the group’s repertoire are arrangements of classical Jewish music, this is the tune that has captured the  attention of hundreds of thousands–maybe millions–of people.  What does it say about us and where we are. Well, it says that even the most traditional of us love it when a Jewish song with traditional themes is so popular, it’s deemed cool.  It’s a sign that we belong, and that we want to.  This is a nice, but very different message from the original meaning of Chanukah that may have found even dabbling in the dominant culture a no no.  One can argue that secular American culture is not idolatrous, but it certainly is licentious and any Maccabean priest would have spit three times rather than have anything to do with a popular non-Jewish song.

Many holidays in the world have a light motif (pardon the pun) this time of year, and although this is not acknowledged as one of the reasons for having an eight day festival during this season, it might be worth incorporating given how most Jews relationship to the dominant culture has changed. The Talmud says that Adam was said to have made a private eight day festival celebrating God’s majesty when winter days began to grow longer.

YU’s motto is Torah and Mada–Torah and General wisdom, a philosophy that argues for the integration of Jewish and General knowledge. Here with this video, they extend that integration to Jewish and general “culture”, something that has always happened with Jewish music. Many of those tunes identified as Jewish originated as German drinking songs. The lyrics are Jewish but the tunes are often borrowed and even the traditional tune to Ma’oz tzur originated as a German folk tune, used by Martin Luther–of all people. . too. The only difference is that we have forgotten where Ma’oz Tzur came from, and this year’s most popular Chanukah song is a parody of a contemporary top forty tune. It is this fact caused millions of Jews and others to tune in. Borrowing tunes replacing them with appropriate lyrics is a time honored Jewish tradition, but given the origins of Chanukah, it does seem a bit ironic.

Also, is something a parody when the essential message is not necessarily humorous?

  1. What was the pun?

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