Each holiday season in the U.S., Christmas cheer fills shopping centers and radio airwaves like an avalanche of fake snow. Growing up Jewish in this environment, one of my few respites from the stampede of Santas was Adam Sandler’s goofy ditty “The Chanukah Song.” His lyrics don’t deal so much with the cliched trappings of Hanukkah—menorahs, chocolate gelt, dreidels, the fist-size sugar-caked jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot—as with who might be celebrating it. It was that list of fellow Jews, whether yoked together puckishly (“Paul Newman’s half Jewish, Goldie Hawn’s half too / Put them together, what a fine-lookin’ Jew”) or crammed awkwardly into lines too short for their syllables (“The owner of the Seattle Supersonicahs / Celebrates Hanukkah”), that helped me feel less strange about the absence of a fir tree hung with glass balls in my living room.
When Sandler debuted “The Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live in 1994, he explained, “When I was a kid this time of year always made me feel a little left out because in school there were so many Christmas songs and all us Jewish kids had was the song ‘Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel.'” That’s obviously an exaggeration—the equally popular “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” for example, has been around forever—but it speaks to the way Christmas music can seem to drown out everything else come December. The gravitational pull of Christmas has affected Hanukkah too; though it’s a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, its proximity to the official merriest day of the year has inflated its cultural importance. Many Jewish musicians (and in 2009, U.S. senator and observant Mormon Orrin Hatch) have written songs that embrace this transformation of Hanukkah into a sort of Jewish-American Christmas.
Twenty-five years ago a Chicagoan named Craig Snider, performing as “Abraham,” took his turn with a cassette single called “Dreidel Rap ’89” (the B side is a “Kosher Basement Mix” of the same song). This summer I saw a sealed copy of the tape on eBay for $52—the cover art features an anthropomorphized dreidel with sunglasses, a soul patch, and a musical-note pendant on a gold chain—and decided to try to find Snider. As soon as I did, I became part of the song’s story, because hearing from me inspired Snider to dig up the original DAT tapes and remaster the recordings. He’s reissuing them himself under the name Craig J., and they should be available on iTunes and Amazon by the start of Hanukkah (which this year falls on the evening of Tuesday, December 16).
Snider, 53, moved to Chicago from the Boston area in 1979 to pursue a degree in composition at Northwestern. After graduating in 1983, he worked odd jobs for several years, including a few with a yuletide bent—recording music for holiday-season commercials, for instance, and performing at Christmas parties. He was struck by the dramatic difference between the warm-and-fuzzy Christmas songs he played and the more traditional Hebrew music he’d heard as a kid during Hanukkah. “We would go to temple and it would be all dark—all these minor keys and kind of depressing,” he says. In 1989, when Snider was 28, he and his manager Craig Springer decided to try to make a different kind of Hanukkah song. “I thought it would be fun to take a stab at having a Hanukkah song that was fun and upbeat and had some of the sensibility of some of the fun Christmas music that’s out there,” Snider says.
“Dreidel Rap ’89” isn’t the first Hanukkah-related hip-hop song, of course. In 1981 oddball radio personality Dr. Demento teamed up with Rhino Records to release Hanukah Rocks! by Gefilte Joe & the Fish, a collection of heavily accented Jewish-themed parody covers of pop songs—among them a mauling of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” retitled “Napper’s Delight.” But where “Napper’s Delight” derives most of its humor from what it assumes will be a ridiculous juxtaposition (everybody knows that Jews and old people hate hip-hop!), Snider’s track focuses earnestly on the joy of playing dreidel, and doesn’t seem to be making fun of rap music in the process. “My parents bought me these giant, oversized plastic dreidels that you could put your chocolate gelt in,” he says. “I would kind of play with the different weight distribution to see if I could figure out a way to be more predictive.”
In his lyrics Snider boasts that his dreidel always wins (and cribs a couple lines from “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel”). The song wouldn’t sound out of place next to any other 80s pop rap: Snider’s flow is blunt and bombastic, often cut up with stuttering edits to imitate record scratching, and the instrumental tracks are exuberant but dated sounding, with bouncy, corny electro-funk keyboards, echo-treated drum-machine loops, and stabs of electronic orchestral strings. Snider says his inspiration came from the Beastie Boys and their playfully rebellious vibe. “Being Jewish, that wasn’t what you would expect,” he explains.
The Beasties are usually one of the starting points in any conversation about Jews in hip-hop—and most folks remember to bring up superproducer and Def Jam cofounder Rick Rubin, label mogul Lyor Cohen, and current chart toppers such as Drake and Mac Miller. Matisyahu isn’t a rapper in the strictest sense of the word, but his Hasidic reggae shtick earned him a crossover hit with the 2005 single “King Without a Crown.” MC Serch broke out in the late 80s with 3rd Bass and went on to serve as executive producer on Nas’s 1994 debut, Illmatic. Leor Dimant, aka DJ Lethal, coproduced House of Pain’s 1992 self-titled debut (though he didn’t make the beat for future bar- and bat-mitzvah party staple “Jump Around”). In 1993 Ruthless Records, the label cofounded by Eazy-E, released Future Profits, the first album from outspokenly Jewish group Blood of Abraham.
Later in the 90s, MC Serch helped assemble Non Phixion, a group that featured a hardcore rapper of Israeli descent who calls himself Ill Bill—he and his brother, Necro, have both had long solo careers. Rapper and producer Jaime “El-P” Meline, who’s on an unbeatable streak as half of Run the Jewels, is half Jewish; he came up in Company Flow in the mid-90s, and in 1999 he cofounded influential underground label Definitive Jux. In 1998 Wu-Tang Killa Bees released The Swarm, a compilation of Wu-Tang affiliates; Jewish rapper Remedy, aka Ross Filler, made his first real splash with his contribution to the comp, the Holocaust remembrance “Never Again,” which has become his signature song.
These days it seems like there are more Jewish MCs than ever: just off the top of my head, I can name former chef and 90s throwback Action Bronson, orthodox convert Nissim, and former battle rapper Soul Khan. Jews on the Chicago scene include DJ RTC, aka Alex Fruchter, who helps run the killer indie label Closed Sessions; Louder Than a Bomb founder and Young Chicago Authors artistic director Kevin Coval, who’s mentored many fierce young Chicago MCs; and Netherfriends, aka Shawn Rosenblatt, who’s collaborated with loads of local rappers. Serengeti is half Jewish, though lately he’s recorded so much material as his fiftysomething blue-collar alter ego Kenny Dennis that it’s hard to remember his real name is David Cohn.
That’s not to say you’d know that most of these folks were Jewish by looking at their work. (Coval hosts a new-school Hanukkah variety show, Liquor & Latkes, on Sat 12/20 at Victory Gardens Theater, but that kind of obvious tip-off is an exception.) I’m drawn to the minority of Jewish rappers whose music expresses their ethnicity and religious upbringing, such as MC Paul Barman, with his perfectly awkward, nebbishy flow, or Anticon cofounder and Why? front man Yoni Wolf. Though Wolf was brought up in Messianic Judaism, a form of Christianity, his tone and language carry a strong sense of Jewishness. On Why?’s “Berkeley by Hearseback,” from 2009’s Eskimo Snow, Wolf draws out the line “A gift from the Maccabees to Mom to me” atop a light, bell-driven track—and it seems fair to say that the gift is Judaism, though it’s conflated with the gift of life. The song has all the warmth of Christmas music and a poetic touch missing from many Hanukkah tunes.
Few of the Hanukkah pop songs I’ve heard get past gimmickry, and some of the rap tracks don’t seem to look any further for inspiration than the dumbest cliches about Jews. West-coast legend Too $hort (as Sandler would put it, “Not a Jew”) begins his 2012 tune “Hanukkah (Favorite Time of the Year)” by saying “I’m a lawyer!” YouTube is lousy with parody Hanukkah rap videos, most of them by amateurs goofing around, but by and large they rely on the assumption that Jewishness and hip-hop are such an incongruous pair that the combination will be funny all by itself (at least 90s group 2 Live Jews tried to write jokes). Perhaps because of this context, when defunct Jewish label JDub Records released the 2012 collections Hip-Hop Hanukkah: The Best of Jewish Rap and Hands Up for Hanukka! The Best Jewish Rap Hits, they didn’t include a single English-language song that was directly about Hanukkah (I can’t speak for the tracks in Hebrew). Despite their packaging, the comps seem to want to present Jewish hip-hop as an ordinary thing, not as a novelty.
Of course, some Jewish rappers embrace the Hanukkah-song shtick—among them Jersey-bred MC Kosha Dillz, aka Rami Even-Esh. “It’s hard to take out the gimmick, but making a holiday song is a gimmick itself,” he says. With his 15-plus years of experience in hip-hop and his pride in his Jewish identity, Even-Esh has learned how to work both sides of the line—he’s played Hanukkah festivals and hosted a SXSW showcase called “Oy Vey!,” and he’s opened for Ghostface Killah and collaborated with Gangsta Boo and C-Rayz Walz. (He’s also booked for Warped Tour this summer.) Even-Esh loves the holiday season, and not just because “It’s Jewish-rapper interview time,” as he puts it—he also enjoys its giving spirit. “You can do a funny song about dreidels and latkes,” he says. “Or you can make a serious one.” His 2011 track “Chanukah vs Christmas (Chanukah Wins)” falls into the former category, in case the title didn’t clue you in.
On the serious side, last year the youth director of a synagogue in Northbrook released “The Dreidel Song,” which includes lyrics about the dreidel’s historical significance. But if I had to pick, I’d go for the silly ones. Even-Esh has more Hanukkah songs in the pipeline, and he says he might drop another during the holidays. Snider’s digital reissue of “Dreidel Rap ’89” is a definite thing, however. He never made another holiday rap song, though he says he had fun doing this one and it sold moderately well—he’s driven by what he calls “creative ADD,” and moved on to other new pursuits. But he does have some dreidel-loving kids, and his conversations with me about “Dreidel Rap ’89” gave him an idea: “You’ve inspired me to play it for them and torture them.”