Every year I wait in anticipation.
Hanukkah’s a-comin’, and boy is it exciting.
Time of the impossible, time of light in a world of darkness, time of miracles.
And each year, I wait for the same impossible miracle: the end to parody Hanukkah music videos.
It’s been something like 5 years now, hasn’t it? Ever since the idea of going viral came into the consciousness of the world, and when religious Jewish musicians had suddenly found a way to make their art accessible to their own audience and to the larger world: the Hanukkah holiday parody music video.
As a marketer, I have to say it’s pretty smart: you take the one Jewish holiday out of the year that everyone knows about, from Jews to non-Jews, and that no Jews, from orthodox to reform to secular, really have to that much more work to do but have a good time… and you then tap into that by making fun music videos that will automatically have a good beat and that are already known among a large amount of people. Genius. Viral magic.
But then there’s another side of me that this bothers deep down and to the core: the religious artist side.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making Jewish art popular and not limiting our vision to our own audience.
But there’s something about these parodies that has always gotten to me, and I think it has more to do with the ease by which these videos become popular (ie “selling out).
Art, and what is seen as “popular art”, is this incredible gauge by which we can measure what is going on in the mind of the public. And music, being the art that goes straight to the heart, straight to something intangible inside of us, intuitive and beyond logic, is the best mirror of society that we can have.
Just look at the 60s. The musicians of Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury, the ones who were rising up against the “man” and the system, the drug-fueled music that aimed to reach deeper than society had allowed them, the protest songs. This wasn’t just underground music, this was music that defined the generation, music that these musicians actually made money from. Because it was the mood of the time.
So these Hanukkah parodies, they always bothered me. They always bugged me. But it was hard to place it. Hard to put my finger on it. Not least because there are plenty of parodies that are genuinely well done, genuinely full of heart (like the Maccabeats mega-viral hit that started this whole insanity, Candlelight.)
So what was it?
It wasn’t until I spoke to a musician, an incredible musician I admire more than anything, that I realized what bothered me so much.
“These videos are popular for one reason: we are afraid to be genuine. Parody music videos are, in essence, the musical form of being sarcastic. They make fun, they point outward, and they avoid vulnerability.”
Wow… that blew my mind. Sarcasm. Yes. Here it was… that’s what bothered me about this music, these videos.
You’d think religious music would be (“should” is a scary word, so I won’t use it, but it’s in my head) more genuine. Less sarcastic. After all, isn’t that why we’re religious? To live in a world of reality instead of falsehood? One that is able to be vulnerable because it possesses incredible, deep, and beautiful truths that allow us to be honest and real with ourselves and the world around us? After all, when God is on your side, what is there to fear?
So, now I understood what bothered me about the music videos themselves. But what about their popularity? The fact that I see incredible, honest, reflective, and vulnerable Jewish music everywhere? The fact that the music I described above does exist, in fact, but does not seem to have the same popularity or “stamp of approval” of the Jewish media, as these sarcastic parody videos?
My friend went on:
“The Jewish world is afraid of vulnerability. So much of what makes a parody video a parody video is that it points to others and says, ‘this is what I am not,’ as opposed to ‘this is who I am.’ And that’s comforting for the Jewish world. They’d rather see what they aren’t than who they are. And they’d rather take comfort in that then in genuinely exploring who they are and what they believe.”
Wow. Wow. Wow.
I know for a fact, as a writer, that when I write in a reactionary way, when I write because of somebody else instead of what I’ve explored within myself, that I am not being the writer, the artist, or the religious person that I could be. I am limiting myself, I can feel it.
Which, ironically, is why I first thought of writing this piece. It was meant to be about everyone but me. Everything but being genuine and real. Ironically, without my musician friend, I would be doing the same thing as the parody videos: pointing outwards instead of inside.
But this conversation changed it: we, the Jewish people, have been afraid for quite a while of truly digging deep. Of truly coming into our own. Of exploring why we believe, what moves us, and how to go even deeper.
Any orthodox Jew also knows this feeling: when he starts to pray out of rote necessity instead of to connect to God. He finds himself starting to be proud of who he isn’t rather than who he is. He starts to find comfort in seeing the fault of other religions or the non-religious. This allows him to escape the overwhelming question hovering above him: how do I get out of this rut?
Is it possible that something as seemingly insignificant as Jewish holiday parody music videos could be signs of the Jewish people being in a rut?
I’m not sure, but I think this points to something much more important: that even if all Hanukkah parody videos ended this year, next year there would probably be a new trend, a new non-reflective, non-introspective, non-vulnerable, form of music that would take its place.
So we can be mad at parody videos all we want, but if we don’t understand that there’s a deeper reality to what is shaping and moving the Jewish people that allows this sort of music to be exponentially more popular than the incredible Jewish music made by the likes of Levi Robin, Darshan, Zusha, and so many others, then their music won’t replace the parody videos. Sarcasm will still be called for.
The bigger question then: how do we, as Jews, as individual Jews, then communally, start to embrace our inner why? How do we stop deflecting and start reflecting? How do we make our religion alive and real inside of us?
Then, and only then, will our culture, and then our popular music, ever transform into something we can truly be proud of.