Two years ago I published the first of two volumes of my own commentary on one of the most important commentaries on Jewish life in America that was sadly flying under the radar. Even when recognized, it is usually misunderstood. I am speaking of course about the album Hanukkah Rocks, by The LeeVee’s Hanukkah. The LeeVee’s not only have recorded an album with great melodies, rhythms, and lyrics, but they have authored a profound statement on the nature of being Jewish, Jewish values, Jewish 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 “interpret me!” What follows is the long anticipated sequel to Volume 1, humbly called the Midrash of Hanukkah Rocks: Volume 2.
(6th song on the album)
Reaching into the pleasures of the Jewish feast, kugel becomes a metaphor for a discussion on the nature of Jewish traditions. Kugel, a heavy, sweet and creamy baked noodle dish that the LeeVees remember Grandma making, has undergone a radical shift. Brought on by low-fat concerns, and other seemingly important cultural and social factors, kugel has been fundamentally altered, nigh, desecrated. Their mother’s kugel just isn’t the same as Grandma’s kugel. Which brings up a discussion about Minhag Yisroel, Torah Hi, “Jewish custom’s pre-eminence is religious matters.” This rabbinic adage, ascribing the importance of tradition and custom in religious practice, is an honest warning against wanton abandonment of Jewish ways. They sing in kugel “So don’t try to tell me things they haven’t changed/ the way your made these days you should have another name/ I just wish things stayed the same.” Is this not an appeal to forestall the wanton abandonment of Jewish tradition, the reckless endangerment of Jewish civilization through casting off seemingly unimportant cultural and religious artifacts that we have adopted on our journey through 2000 years of exile?
And if this is not an appeal to rejoice and empower a return to minhag avos, beautiful traditions left by the wayside. Is this not a a call to respect traditions. It is not by accident that Fiddler on the Roof uses the refrain, Tradition, to concentrate Jewish experience into one word. Kugel, is Tradition, in hipster speak.
“Now I’m getting hungry… ” In other words, there is a deep longing for meaningful traditions—not fluff, not new-age shallowness, not cultural appropriation and misappropriation of the sacred creeds of other traditions, melted into a Judaism.
“Sorry mom your just ain’t the same…” I respect where my parents have gone, but truly, they have gone so far, that we have lost the essence of being Jewish, the path of spirituality, the deep connections to our creamy-thick and rich past.
At the Matzah Ball
Almost nowhere in contemporary music has their been a more poignant and beautiful ballad in favor of Jewish continuity, the importance of finding your beshert. Jewish artists rarely take this issue head on. They don’t want to upset the apple cart —many of their fan base is not upset by the specter of intermarriage and deep assimilation. They write fluffy songs. They fill the airwaves with all kinds of gooey stuff, but when the rubber hits the road—the future of the Jewish community—they have let us down.
The LeeVees have taken the issue by the horns, and have penned an appeal to Jewish men: find a Jewish girl. “Jewish girls all shapes and sizes, waiting for you…” you might be convinced that all Jewish girls are the same—they aren’t. God created Jewish women and men in great diversity. Each person has a beshert. We don’t know when or where we will meet them, it might even be while you are sitting on a metal folding chair at the JCC’s mitzvah ball.
“Didn’t know you were a member of the tribe,” You might not even realize, sing the LeeVees, that the girl you have been looking at is Jewish! She might not wear her tribal affiliations around her neck. That doesn’t mean that being Jewish is not important to her. She can be a passionate and dedicated Jew, and be a private person.
There is another message of the song, hidden beneath the layers of harmony and a catchy beat: “Loneliness won’t keep you warm in winter.” They are telling us, don’t be a martyr on the alter of your ego. And don’t think that your true happiness will come in playing the field indefinitely. Is it an accident that Chanukah comes now? And finally, the moral of the story, perhaps, is that we cannot find our beshert, without looking for them.
Again, the LeeVees use the metaphor of a common Chanukah celebration, in this case the eating of chocolate coins, to instill a deep message about performing mitzvas and the nature of why we do mitzvahs.
Many times we are confronted with the thoughts of why it is a mitzvah to do this or that—eat matzah on Passover, wave the lulav, not eat milk and meat together—and we are stumped. It makes no sense.
One of the primary reasons we do mitzvahs is not because we understand always the nature of the mitzvah. We do mitzvahs with the belief that we will internalize an essential connection to God through performance of mitzvahs. Later, we will come to an understanding. It will not be apparent, it may not come right away. Nonetheless we cannot refrain from doing mitzvhas, because life is short. Life is fleeting, life melts as fast chocolate coins in your pocket.
Of course we will be ridiculed by the world. The world will look at our mitzvahs and try to humiliate us with them—but look who is talking! As they sing “If goys can eat a chocolate bunny, why cant we eat chocolate money?” The goyim might ridicule some of our traditions, some of our mitzvahs, but look whose talking! And chocolate bunnies is just the start.
“You gotta get while you can, won’t last long/we don’t claim to have the answer this song/but your good thing will be gone” Mitzvas are fleeting. You cannot make Kiddush Sunday morning. You can’t make up for Chanukah in January. The time is now. Carpe Mitzvah!
Nun Gimmel Heh Shin
You might think that dreidel is just a game. Dredel is really an eloquent way to teach children about life, giving, service, self sacrifice, thinking of others. This song goes against the entire grain of society now, which is all about me, all “I” this and “I” that. Where is the “thou” where is the other? Life is about giving. “You’ll get out what you put in.”
Nun, Gimmel, Hey, Shin then teaches us that even the most innocent of Jewish childhood games has depth, character, and instructs us in the game of life. It is sacred. It is innocent. It is wholesome. Those that organize Texas Hold-em Dreidel contests, dreidel drinking games, and strip- dreidel, are contributing to the profound degradation of our consciousness, denigrating the innocent game at the expense of vice. They let chronic pornography, gambling addiction, and alcoholism become acceptable. The Maccabbes fought to save us from the Hellenism! The debasement of dreidel gives the Greeks a posthumous victory. Dreidel needs to stay just dreidel.
See below for Volume One:
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 spiritually 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 Hanukah 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 (Are you listening ADL?) And what is the Jewish response LeeVees? “Its 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 (song #2) emphasizes the philosophical underpinnings of our theology. “Life 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 (song#4) 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 “Tallahassee…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? (song #5) 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 Hanukah in Ancient Israel, in Medieval Spain, in Poland, Morocco, or Persia. It was spelled in Hebrew letters, and means “they rested on the 25th” of Kislev, or “they 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.