It is no longer enough to label a film a Christmas movie. The sheer volume of entries in the genre demands a more specific taxonomy: There are the standard-issue comedies (Santa Clause, Jingle All the Way), canonized classics (Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life), Yuletide horror (Black Christmas or the more recent Krampus), and mistletoe-decked rom-coms in the vein of Love Actually. Hell, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas even brought the stoner-flick genre into the fold. That’s not to mention such essential viewing as the Rankin-Bass stop-motion TV specials, The Grinch, and miscellaneous Christmas-set genre pictures that get tangentially caught under the umbrella. (Call it the Die Hard effect.)
Every year when the holiday season rolls around, Jewish pop-culture addicts find themselves left out in the cold. The dearth of movies centered on Hanukkah has grown especially glaring as Hollywood has expanded to make room for a wider diversity of filmmakers and stories across racial, sexual, and gender lines. It’s almost suspicious that a culture with such a rich history and vibrant present would go almost entirely ignored by the movies — after all, we do supposedly control the media — though the underlying cause may have less to do with the fact that only around 2.2 percent of American citizens are Jewish, and more to do with the holiday itself.
The Hanukkah movies we do have only barely engage with the holiday itself
The province of Hanukkah entertainment has historically been television, where nodding to a Jewish viewership doesn’t demand such a great expenditure of time or resources. Plenty of shows have shifted focus for an episode to a token Hanukkah-observant character so that they may share their customs and provide a little background on the holiday.
Friends poked fun at the tough sell of Hanukkah over the flashier, more popular Christmas with Ross’s feeble attempts to get his son jazzed over his dual-religion heritage using the “Holiday Armadillo.” Saturday Night Live’s “Christmastime for the Jews” sketch turned a Phil Spector-styled girl-group song into an ode to the joys of avoiding Christmas. Who could forget the Rugrats Hanukkah special, in which Tommy Pickles and his infant buddies travel back to the time of Judah the Macca-baby to learn about the strife of the ancient Hebrew people? And of course, The O.C.’s “Chrismukkah” episode remains one of the cornerstones of Western art. (Or at the very least, a pretty deft take on increasingly common multiculturalism within a single family unit.)
Out in the bigger arena of the movie biz, however, Hanukkah has gotten an unreasonably short shrift.
Adam Sandler has taken up the unofficial mantle of the Festival of Lights’ primary defender, drafting his much-beloved “Hanukkah Song” specifically as pushback against the paucity of Jew-friendly holiday entertainment. He continued on with his mission in 2002 with Eight Crazy Nights, his equally misanthropic and sophomoric cartoon about one screw-up’s attempts to scrape his life back together during the holiday season. In addition to co-writing the script with three fellow comedians, Sandler voices Davey, an ill-tempered wastrel with a taste for booze and destruction of public property. In between set pieces of scatological majesty (one incident involving a port-a-potty, a water hose, and a deer isn’t easily forgotten), Davey bitterly shuts out the world and undergoes a fairly standard redemption narrative.
The extent to which Sandler and the film actually interface with Hanukkah and its significance is questionable. The holiday pops up all over the film; Davey’s parents died during a childhood Hanukkah, and the card they left to him represents his one link to his lost loved ones. As the title makes clear, the events of the film play out over the course of a single Hanukkah, and in a pivotal moment, it’s the nebulously defined “spirit of Hanukkah” that guides Davey back to his senses. But mostly, the film’s ostensible reason for being gets reduced to set-dressing and wordplay for the many musical numbers.
Lesser known and less critically loathed, The Hebrew Hammer trades Cuban-link chains for Star of David pendants to send up blaxploitation cinema. The comic chronicle of a mensch-Superfly named Mordechai and his heroic exploits is packed with inside jokes for the in-the-know faction of viewers, mining punchlines from bar mitzvahs, Manischewitz, and ritual circumcision.
A perfectly cast Adam Goldberg blends silky-smooth 1970s panache with the neuroses endemic to cultural depictions of Jewish men as he foils a plot from a power-mad Santa Claus (Andy Dick) to permanently cancel Hanukkah. But all along, director Jonathan Kesselman places more emphasis on absurdist gags (a key character is named Mohammad Ali Paula Abdul Rahim) than on faith itself. At a key moment, Mordechai starts to explain the importance and meaning of Hanukkah to Andy Dick’s evil Kris Kringle, but realizes he has no follow-up.
At first blush, it’s baffling that these two films comprise pretty much the entire canon of what could be accurately deemed Hanukkah movies. Where’s the CGI-heavy studio adaptation of Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, which was read to me annually as a child? Where’s the heartwarming Hanukkah family dramedy? The modern Jewish family experience certainly appears ripe for comedy and pathos — everyone has that kooky relative that would make for some colorful comic relief. Family is a cornerstone of Jewish community, and that should translate to crowd-pleasing seasonal entertainment.
Hanukkah doesn’t easily lend itself to seasonal cheer. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
In her 1995 article “Jewish Humor, Self-Hatred, or Anti-Semitism,” published in The Journal of Popular Culture, Nancy Jo Silberman-Friedman states that “while [Hanukkah] is relegated by the rabbis to a relatively minor status among other Jewish holidays, in America it has taken on a ‘Jewish Christmas’ element.” Hanukkah is a fundamentally different holiday than Christmas, however, with a radically opposing set of animating principles that may help explain its relative absence in the holiday-movie realm.
The story of Hanukkah is that of suffering and hardship: The Maccabees had just survived a brutal conflict with the Greeks, when the ragged surviving Heebs made their last pittance of lamp oil stick for eight days. The great miracle of Christmas is the arrival of the savior, but the great miracle of Hanukkah was keeping the lights on in the rubble-strewn aftermath of a costly war.
To varying extents, all Jewish holidays are oriented around austerity and guilt, which don’t lend themselves as easily to screenplay-friendly warming sensations as peace on earth and goodwill toward men. An honest Hanukkah movie would almost necessarily be a movie about taking a long, hard look at yourself and your choices, which is the last thing most audiences want at this time of year. It’s the stuff of great drama and blackly sardonic comedy, but not exactly spritely seasonal cheer, which box-office receipts have determined to be the prevailing tone for holiday movies.
Setting aside the fact that the vast majority of Americans identify as Christian, Christmas also happens to turn on such bottom-line-friendly sentiments as forgiveness, hope, new beginnings, and salvation. And while Hanukkah has dreidels and latkes and a goodly amount of fun, the celebration’s underpinnings just don’t strike the same sort of jolly chord, one that viewers want to return to (and pay for) season after season.
Reconciling the solemn roots of Hanukkah with the upbeat spirit that holiday movies demand remains a challenge for some enterprising screenwriter, but one eminently worth undertaking. For one, it’d make a lot of Jews who are tired of rewatching a cartoon Adam Sandler make poop jokes very happy to get some fresh material. (Most of us have eight nights of family time in need of filling, for Judah’s sake.)
Beyond that, though, there’s rich narrative ground in the Jewish heritage waiting to be broken, and good stories deserve to be told. The time has come — Hollywood’s ready for The Schlep Around the Corner.