Adam Sandler's back,
For the Festival of Lights,
With a new list of famous Jews
To plug "Eight Crazy Nights."
It started as a throwaway bit on "Saturday Night Live." Cast member Adam Sandler, confronted with a stable of Christmas songs, decided to give equal time to Hanukah. Dispensing with the usual trappings of the holiday -- the dreidels and potato latkes -- he came right out outing celebrities who are Jewish.
"David Lee Roth lights the menorah," Sandler first sang in 1994. "So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas and the late Dinah Shore-ah."
The ditty quickly disappeared, only to resurface on Sandler's 1996 comedy album, "What the Hell Happened to Me?" Soon, a video version of the song began airing on MTV, and radio stations started putting it on their playlists. The album went on to sell 3 million copies. And a Hanukah classic -- or at least the first Hanukah-theme pop song widely embraced by the goyim -- was born.
After releasing an updated version in 1999 ("So many Jews are in showbiz / Bruce Springsteen isn't but my mother thinks he is"), Sandler has now leveraged his two-minute shtick into a full-fledged entertainment franchise. The latest version, "The Hanukah Song III," is the theme music for a new Sandler-produced and -voiced animated musical movie, "Eight Crazy Nights," a title that refers both to the duration of the holiday that starts tonight at sunset and a line from the original song.
The third iteration is just as musically primitive and lyrically challenged as the original (This time out, Sandler rhymes "Hanukah" with "high colonic-ah") but it retains the same goofy charm and subject matter. "Houdini and David Blaine escape straitjackets with such precision," Sandler sings. "But one thing they could not get out of: their painful circumcision."
Question is, what's so funny about identifying who's a Jew? Why is Sandler's song so entertaining to so many people -- particularly Jewish people?
To some Jews, the songs are a source of pride, even a cultural milestone. It's not that anyone needs reminding that "so many Jews are in showbiz"; Jews have been behind popular movies and TV shows for decades. But they've often buried their heritage by changing their names (Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch, and Winona Ryder was Winona Horowitz, for instance). Or, like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, they use it as a source of comic self-deprecation. Some, like Jerry Seinfeld, rarely raise the subject at all.
In this case, Jews like that Sandler has had the chutzpah to proclaim his Jewishness (and that of others) loud and proud.
"The historical memory for Jews of Sandler's parents and grandparents' generation was to hide out, to not go public," says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York. "What's amazing about that song, what makes it important, is that Jews are being outed, and it's no big deal. It's funny, and it's normal. This is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, and American history. There's no way that song could have been performed 40 years ago."
At the same time, Jewish people say it's gratifying to learn that so many disparate people are Jewish. If they say anything at all, the Sandler songs may say that it's hard to construct an anti-Semitic stereotype.
What connecting thread is there, after all, among the names Sandler mentions in his trilogy -- people such as William Shatner, Ann Landers, the Beastie Boys, Courtney Love (one of her grandparents was Jewish), Yasmine Bleeth (half Jewish) or "all Three Stooges"? A separate list of Tribesmen would also include such surprises as Robert De Niro (his mother was Jewish, making him a Jew under religious law), Leslie Howard (the personification of Southern aristocracy in "Gone With the Wind"), Rosanna Arquette and Ellen Barkin.
"I think it could serve some educational value," said Simon Amiel, executive director of the Hillel Jewish student organization at George Washington University. "It's kind of a tool for lessening ignorance of what a Jew is, does or looks like."
Sandler has effectively taken a generations-old Jewish parlor game -- prompted by the question "Did you know So-and-So is Jewish?" -- and turned it into a mass-market phenomenon. Other immigrant communities -- Italians, Irish, Greeks, Hispanics, etc. -- do something similar, as do African Americans, who have long speculated on the possible "blackness" of people perceived to be "white."
The dark side of all this is that some people don't want to be "outed," and such labeling can be perverted to justify racism and anti-Semitism. Tom Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, told the Los Angeles Times two years ago that Sandler's songs helped fuel his racial hatred. "I found it to be a funny song, and it enabled me to say, 'The Jews control everything,' " Leyden told the newspaper.
Yet, "if you don't ever talk about who's Jewish, then you bury the Jewish cultural achievement," says Nate Bloom, the editor of Jewhoo.com, an encyclopedic Web site of Jewish celebrities. "If it's always a little impolite to say it, then you're downgrading it."
(For the record, Bloom points out that Sandler's songs contain several mistakes: Harrison Ford, for example, isn't "a quarter Jewish," but fully so, given his mother's heritage, and baseball great Rod Carew never converted to Judaism, although he did marry a Jewish woman.)
Not all Jews are enamored of Sandler's songs, or their putative message. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, the author of "Searching for My Jewish Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World," says "Hanukah" ultimately bespeaks a vapid, superficial Jewishness, even irreligiousness.
"All of these celebrities are Jewish, but you ultimately have to ask, 'So what?' " he says. ". . . Having reached acceptance in American society, the next question is 'What have you done for your people lately?' Have any of them spoken out for Israel at a time of its greatest emergency? For the most part, these [Jewish] Hollywood celebrities are a vast wasteland. I'm waiting for one of them to stand up and be counted and speak out for Israel."
Sandler, who declined to be interviewed, certainly seems to have taken his Jewishness seriously. Though he was born 36 years ago in very-Jewish Brooklyn, his family (mom Judy, dad Stanley, four children) moved to not-Jewish Manchester, N.H., when Sandler was in the first grade. He was one of only two Jews in his class at Webster Elementary. When he was an adolescent, he said in an interview with the New York Post last June, he got into a fight with a kid who made fun of him for going to Hebrew school.
His fiancee, model-actress Jacqueline Titone, recently coverted to Judaism in preparation for their marriage. Sandler also ensured that the beneficiary of a special screening of "Eight Crazy Nights" in New York earlier this month was Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital.
Of the original song, he once told the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, "I was walking down the street when I thought up the first line. It went, 'Paul Newman is half Jewish, Goldie Hawn is, too. Put them together: What a fine-looking Jew!' "
Ultimately, says Jewhoo's Bloom, it's hard to separate this messenger from his "message."
"If many other comedians did this song," he says, "it would be seen in a very different light. But Sandler, the clown, makes it a boisterous celebration, and he lets you, no matter who you are, join in the joke and the 'discoveries.' . . . Because Sandler's such a regular guy, he can be very ethnic and still seem universal."