Hanukkah Rocks is Profound and Delightful, Ten Years On

December 10, 2015

One of the most important commentaries on Jewish life in America was released ten years ago and is still sadly flying under the radar. Even when recognized, it is usually misunderstood. I am speaking of course about the LeeVee's Hanukkah Rocks Album, originally released ten years ago on JDub Records. 

If you have heard this album you know it's infectious and joyous nature is a result of some of rock's great musicians from the Zambonis and Guster. These are seasoned professionals that turned their notes towards Hanukkah and we, the Jewish people, will forever be grateful.

The LeeVee's not only recorded an album with great melodies, rhythms, and lyrics, but they authored a profound statement on the nature of being Jewish, Jewish values, nationhood, and Jewish philosophy.

Looking at Hanukkah Rocks from a rabbinical perspective, the issues, the topics, the mitzvahs literally leap off the page, it all screams darsheni “œinterpret me”! What follows is humbly called the Midrash of Hanukkah Rocks which I wrote in 2005 when the album was reelased.

Hanukkah Rocks Midrash, Vol. 1

The album begins with Latke Clan, a ballad on Jewish nationhood. Not so long ago, we could describe the Jewish people as a community of believers, as Rabbi Hirsch wrote in the 19th century. Jews were held together by a belief system, rooted in the Torah, and our historical precariousness. Today, the entire notion of what constitutes Jewish people-hood is up for grabs. Are we just a loosely affiliated ethnic group with fondness for special foods during winter holidays, or is there a deeper bond, deeper meaning? Latke Clan establishes that while we may be rooted in ethnic food rituals, we are still bound together by familial affiliation and remain a home centered people. And far from being exclusive, it emphasizes the Abraham and Sarah open-tent approach: “So come and join our Latke Clan, We'™ll save you a plate.” In other words, the door is open at all times to Jews and their admirers to partake in our historic mission of being a light unto the nations. You have a role to play, no matter your place now, join us at the big table.

The third song, Goyim Friends, keeps with the theme of Jewish people-hood. Linguists and cultural anthropologists should take note of the use of a once taboo word in the title of this song (and see below How Do You Spell). The word goy is now out of the closet. Goyim Friends is one of the most eloquent testaments to the Jewish longing for a final redemption, and the end of our spiritual and physical exile.

Goyim Friends establishes that Chanukah is NOT a Jewish Christmas. Chanukah must retain its place in the entire spectrum of Jewish holydays, part of the spiritual lifeblood of our communal identity. Chanukah is a special time of year for family, food and fun. An important moment in the Jewish year, but by no means the pinnacle.

But Goyim Friends goes further, to look at the nature of the holiday itself in the modern era. For what does Chanukah stand for today, when the Jewish Temple lies in ruins, when Jews remain spiritualy exiled, when assimilation today is at its highest levels since the Hellenist era, when ironically Jews have become hip? While gentile friends eat their ham, honey glazed, baked to perfection, what is our response “Jews march on with General Tsao and Egg Foo Yung” which symbolizes our long march towards Moshiach and Tchias HaMatim, the resurrection of the dead.

In other words, our focus has not changed, even though our historical circumstances have. This poignant issue, the struggle between Jacob and Esav, between Chanukah and Christmas, two different world views reverberates throughout Hanukkah Rocks. The Goyim are jealous, “How lucky we are to get off each holiday like Tu B'Shvat, Purim, and Rosh Hashanah”. This jealousy, as recorded in the Talmud, is a root cause of Anti-Semitism. And what is the Jewish response LeeVees? “It's oh so wrong, but we will march on.”

Is this not a plea to G-d to end our exile, and to restore the Jewish people to a place of spiritual leadership in the world?

The second song of Hanukah Rocks is on the nature of Free Will vs. determinism. Apple Sauce vs. Sour Cream emphasizes the philosophical underpinnings of our theology. “œLife has many decisions, it moves in all directions, this is just one huge enormous decision.” Everything is foreseen, and yet we still retain free choice. Why? We have free choice because otherwise humanity would be nothing more than robots, performing Gods will and not our own. Free choice is part of our theological understanding of the nature of the world, and just as the seemingly tiny decision of what we want to put on our latkes requires a decision, so do the most important decisions in life. Do I want to be part of the Jewish people? What kind of life do I want to live? What is my obligation, if any to my history and culture? It cannot be summed up any better “every decision in life has consequences and significance.”

One of the most fundamental commandments in the Torah, in fact it made the top ten, is honoring your mother and father. At The Time Share eloquently illustrates that while we must bear at times insults, and backhanded compliments, our fundamental obligation is to honor our parents. It doesn’t say love, or even like, just honor.

“My mother says that it won'™t be long before she lives there all year round.” The lyrics present a challenge that many of us will face. As our parents grow old, they may choose to live in places far from us, and their grandchildren. Do we support their choice to move to Florida, Arizona or Leisure World, or do we tell them to stay close by? Ultimately, we must support our parents choices, even if they want move to “Tallahasse, as long as its in Florida.”

Just living a Jewish life, and celebrating Hanukah is of course not enough. One must also dedicate themselves to Jewish education, to becoming a knowledgeable Jew. How Do You Spell Channukkahh? argues just this point, that we have achieved great things in secular education, but are crippled Jewishly. We are left trying to figure out how to spell our own holidays in transliteration.

There was never a question of how to spell Hanukkah in Ancient Israel, in Medieval Spain, in Poland, Morocco, or Persia. It was spelled in Hebrew letters, and means “œthey rested on the 25th” of Kislev, or “œthey dedicated it” on the 25th. There was never an issue of transliteration until the mass assimilation of Jews in Europe starting in mid 19th century. As Jews lost Hebrew literacy, spelling our dear traditions and Holydays became a subject of Spelling Bees.

The rest of the commentary will be published momentarily in Hanukkah Rocks Midrash Vol. 2!

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