Here's the complete story about how Orrin Hatch and I collaborated on this Hanukkah song:
Ten years ago, I visited Hatch, the senior senator from Utah and a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Capitol Hill. I was writing for The New York Times Magazine and Hatch was thinking of running for president. We talked about politics for a few minutes, and then he said, "Have you heard my love songs?"
No senator had asked me that question before. It turned out that Hatch was a prolific songwriter, not only of love songs, but of Christian spirituals as well. We spent an hour in his office listening to some of his music, a regular Mormon platter party. After five or six Christmas songs, I asked, him, "What about Hanukkah songs? You have any of those?"
I have always felt that the song canon for Hanukkah, a particularly interesting historical holiday, is sparse and uninspiring, in part because Jewish songwriters spend so much time writing Christmas music. Several years earlier, as a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, I sponsored a Write-a-New-Song-for-Hanukkah contest. I received more than 200 entries. Most were dreck. The songs I liked best were the ones uninfected by self-distancing Jewish irony, songs that actually wrestled with the complicated themes of Hanukkah--religious freedom, political extremism, the existence, or non-existence, of an interventionist God--in a more earnest way.
Hatch lit up at my suggestion. He asked me to jot down some possible themes, which I did. Then he got sidetracked by his presidential campaign. (He didn't win.) Still, time went on, and no song.
I never forgot about it, though. My interest in the Hanukkah story has stayed with me. I'm even writing a biography of Judah Maccabee for Nextbook Press. Last December, while reading From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, by Elias Bickerman, my mind wandered back to Orrin Hatch's promise, and so I reminisced on my Atlantic blog about the time Hatch nearly wrote a Hanukkah song for me. A couple of days later, I received an email that read, "Dear Jeff, I know it's nine years too late, but I hope you will like some of the following ideas." What followed were five verses of a sincerely felt Hanukkah song.
I didn't quite believe it was Hatch writing me, so I wrote back, asking this alleged Hatch to call.
The next night was Christmas Eve, and my family and I were wandering the aisles of the Martinsburg, West Virginia, Wal-Mart. (Don't ask.) My children had just discovered something miraculous--a display case filled with kosher products. We had never seen this before. I began to deliver a lecture in the kosher food aisle, explaining that what we were seeing was further proof indeed that America is a Promised Land for our people, a place where even the Wal-Mart in Martinsburg, West Virginia, carries Manischewitz matzo-ball mix. It was at this moment that my cell phone rang.
"Jeff, it's Orrin," I heard over the phone. "What do you think of the song?" It was, indeed, Hatch. The second miracle of the night.
"Senator Hatch," I said. "It's Christmas Eve."
"Yes, it is!" Hatch replied. "What about the song?"
"Senator," I said, "I love the song."
And I do. It's a delightful thing to have Orrin Hatch write a song for Hanukkah. Of course I appreciate the absurdist quality to this project, but I also deeply appreciate Hatch's earnestness. His lyrics are not postmodern or cynical, which is a blessing, because I for one have tired of the Adam Sandlerization of Judaism in America. Yes, we are, as a people, funny (at least when compared to other people, such as Croatians) but our neuroses, well-earned though they may be, have caused us to lacerate our own traditions, which are in fact (to borrow from Barack Obama) awesome. The story of Hanukkah is a good case in point--maybe the perfect one.