How to Write a Hanukkah Song

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The rest of the world is still eons away from Hanukkah. If you’re super-prepared — like my mother, for instance — you’re just starting to think about buying Hanukkah presents*. If you’re like me, you’ll realize on December 1 that Hanukkah starts on December 11, and think you have tons of time, and then on December 11, as Shabbat is starting, you’ll totally freak out that you haven’t bought anyone presents yet.

But this year is different than all other years. Why, you ask? Because I wrote a Hanukkah song.

the hanukkah projectI sat down with my songwriting partner, Mista Cookie Jar, months ago. At first I wasn’t sure which direction we were going to take. How could I? It was early November, still basically Halloween. Anyway, my thoughts were a lot closer to shofars and sukkahs than menorahs and Maccabees. It’s exactly like department stores that put up Christmas trees in early fall, or hosts who put out dessert while you’re still eating dinner. By which I mean to say: you’re not in the right head space.

So, when my friend Patrick Aleph of the Southern Jewish punk band Can!!Can came knocking — one of his friends, Amanda from The Bachelorettes, wanted to put together a Southern Hanukkah record — we had to rise to the call of duty. (I’m from Philly, but Cookie Jar is from West Virginia, and we both like grits.) It’s true that, in my slam-poetry gigs, I do a poem called Dreidel Maven (download the mp3 free!), and I perform it year-round. I also have a chapbook called Dreidel Spinning Champion of the Universe, but the title refers more to being a twelve-year-old boy than to the divine miracle of everlasting olive oil.

So we could go in the direction of kitsch. And, fortunately, Hanukkah is replete with kitsch: menorahs, latkes, sufganiyot, gelt, even chintzy Maccabee costumes. And, closely related, the direction of cheesy rhymes, which Adam Sandler pioneered, and subsequently ruined for all other potential Hanukkah songwriters, ever.

But you know what? Adam Sandler can keep it. I didn’t want to rhyme Hanukkah with Veronica or harmonica or marijuanica or anything else. I wanted to write about something cool. Something indie. Something revolutionary.

The story of Hanukkah is a hard one, though — for all that religious people insist that we’re not celebrating a military victory, it sounds suspiciously like we’re doing just that. A lot of people died. There was a Maccabee army. Sure, they were fighting for freedom, but it was still fighting. Like it or not, we killed people. And it wasn’t pleasant.

It got me thinking, though. If the Maccabees existed today, what in the world would they do? Would they be guerrilla soldiers? Social-networking hackers? Marketing pundits? One pop hook later, and after a lot of sugar inhalation, and we got our song: The Maccababies. It’s a little frenetic, a little crazy, and a little can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head-y, if I do say so myself.

What did we end up with? Well, you can listen to it here. Or you can buy the compilation CD — made by a bunch of awesome kids in Jackson, Mississippi, with a hand-screened cover, and including temporary tattoos and a dreidel and gelt — for $10.

While I’d like to think that our song still conveys the spirit, celebration, and giddiness of Hanukkah, it might not call to mind that same vision of snow flurries as “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” or “Jingle Bell Rock.” Maybe just because it doesn’t have jingling bells or kitschy rhymes. Or maybe because, when we started writing it, it was still 65 degrees and sunny outside.

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* – Hi, Mom! If you’re reading this: A new camera, the final volume of X-Statix, and socks. No, not socks.

Posted on November 30, 2009

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