Adam Sandler's accomplishments stand alone. "The Hannukah Song" began as a short guest segment on Weekend Update. A little acoustic ditty written for those who "feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree," the song was a gargantuan smash—an instant holiday radio staple, and a viral classic before anyone knew what "viral" meant, that spawned second and third version, plus a full-length animated feature.
Improbable as it may seem, Adam Sandler is one of the most important figures in American Jewish history. No other entertainer has done what he has—not Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, or even Woody Allen—whose films forced us to reassess the definition of a leading man. Not even Groucho Marx—who first brought the rhythms and inflections of Yiddish into English, and almost single-handedly invented the American comic voice. No one but Sandler has so successfully combined being Jewish with being cool.
Not all Hanukah songs are silly, though. The three special Hebrew blessings for Chanukah have continually been set to different scores throughout the centuries. The traditional Maoz T'zur or "Rock of Ages," uses a very old Jewish liturgical poem or piyyut. In more contemporary times, Ocho Candelikas, written by the remarkable Flory Jagoda, is probably the best known Hanukah song to embrace the rich Sephardic/Latino tradition.
Not so well known is that Woody Guthrie, the great Dust Bowl balladeer, spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, married a Jewish woman, and became very close to his mother-in-law, a well-known Yiddish poet named Aliza Greenblatt. Woody even wrote songs for parties at the local Jewish community center—one of them being the lovely "Hanukkah Dance." That same folk tradition produced the more popular, but much more hamhanded "Light One Candle," by Peter, Paul & Mary.
A few Chanukah songs have been around long enough to count as classics. "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" has been recorded by dozens of acts. So has "I Have a Little Dreidel". Not to be confused with the perplexing nugget, "Dredel" by Don McLean, and also known as "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel " it's been covered by everyone from Barenaked Ladies, to the heavy metal act Gods of Fire, the jam ban moe., and the US Air Force Concert Band.
Erran Boaz Baron Cohen, composer and brother of Sacha Baron, reprises those songs and more on a remarkable 2008 release. Songs in the Key of Hanukkah, a multi-artist collaboration, blend straditional songs, in Hebrew, English, Yiddish and Ladino, with cutting-edge elements of Electronica, Rock, Reggae and Hip-Hop.
Beyond that, really, the pickings get slim. Especially compared to the wealth of wonderful Christmas music—songs like "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Silver Bells," "The Christmas Song," and, of course, the immortal "White Christmas." That's no surprise, really. For most of the 20th century, American-Jewish songwriters were devoting their energies to projects besides writing Hanukkah songs. Namely, in writing the Great American Songbook, Including the chapters on Christmas—including every single one of the Yuletide classics mentioned above.