For Millennial Jews, the coming of spring brings the anticipation of participating in cherished Pesach rituals: eating matzah, having a Seder, and watching “A Rugrats Passover.”
Twenty-five years ago this year, on April 13, 1995, Nickelodeon debuted the Jewish holiday special of what was then its most popular cartoon series – one of the first times a Passover Seder was depicted in an American television show. The episode was the highest-rated show in Nick history, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program. A revival of the series is currently in the works, led by the creators and many of the original writers.
In subsequent years, watching the episode, either in reruns or on Nick’s iconic orange VHS tapes, became an annual tradition for many young Jews – some of whom have maintained the tradition with their own children. When it came to depictions of Judaism in popular culture, “As a kid, the only thing that I had was the ‘Rugrats’ Passover special,” writer/director Benny Safdie told Slate last year.
In preparation for tonight’s Seder, I showed my kids the Rugrats Passover episode. I mean, let’s be honest, they probably learned more from that than they will tonight! pic.twitter.com/Ogzb42hYka— lisa hendricks (@MsLisaHendricks) April 19, 2019
The Rugrats Passover special was the first time I felt like I saw myself represented in the media.— Alex Wyse (@alexwyse) April 1, 2018
Fun fact: Rugrats was the only show for kids (that my family knew of) that did special episodes for Jewish holidays.
The Rugrats Passover and the other specials were *VERY* big deals for us. pic.twitter.com/SyymXPJ0Z7— Sam White (@samwhiteout) August 11, 2019
A cartoon show about the inner lives of toddlers that broadcast from 1991 to 2004, “Rugrats” was highly popular and critically renowned for the way it depicted the adult world through children’s eyes. Steven Spielberg called the show “sort of a TV Peanuts of our time.” The success of the show led to three feature films, a sequel series, a newspaper comic strip, multiple video games and more than $1 billion in merchandise sales.
During production of the Passover episode, the show’s Jewish writers, producers and actors were excited by the prospect of sharing their heritage with the children (and their parents) who watched the show. But they never anticipated that the reaction would be this positive and widespread.
“We had the responsibility to be factually accurate, and we tried to get a lot of information in 22 minutes,” recalled Rachel Lipman, one of the writers of the episode. “But being entertaining was the most important part. Because if you can engage emotionally in a story, you’re going to watch it again.”
In the episode, the characters attend a Seder at the home of Boris and Minka, who are Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and the maternal grandparents of the protagonist baby Tommy Pickles. Although there had been Jewish lead characters on television before, Tommy – whose mother is Jewish and father is Christian – was the first to lead an American children’s series. His upbringing was important to the show’s creators, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo (who were themselves in a Jewish-Christian mixed marriage) and Paul Germain, who is Jewish.
Germain “loved his bubbe and wanted to integrate that remembrance of his into the stories, and didn’t realize what a touchstone it would be,” said Melanie Chartoff, who played Minka as well as Minka’s daughter Didi (meaning she sometimes had to record arguments with herself).
When she auditioned for Minka, Chartoff recounted, “I was told that the character was ‘from the old country.’ I said, ‘Which old country?’ They said, ‘The Jewish old country.’”
Chartoff is Jewish, but grew up in an assimilated home among parents who had “prided themselves on not having accents.” So to pick up the voice, she traveled to Fairfax, a Los Angeles neighborhood with a large Jewish population, and began observing Russian immigrant women.
Michael Bell, who played Boris, the grandfather character, as well as two other parental characters, said that the producers didn’t know he was Jewish when they asked him to audition. He modeled his accent after his immigrant grandfather, whom he had been imitating for years. “He would call me ‘yungele kaker,’ and when I got older, I knew what he was saying and I’d call him an alter kaker,” he said.
Chartoff and Bell said that they often had to improvise when episodes featuring their characters were written by non-Jews.
“They’d have her say, ‘Oh lordy, lordy’” – which didn’t sound in-character – “and I had to kind of come up with a Jewish improvisational thing that I would scream at my husband,” Chartoff said.
Sometimes, Bell slipped in some Yiddish vernacular that, if properly translated, wouldn’t have been allowed on a children’s show. “I would say, ‘Gei kaken afn yam,’” Bell said. “They said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘It means, “Go spit in the ocean.”’” (It actually means, “Go shit in the ocean”).
The episode itself came about when Nickelodeon executives suggested a Hanukkah episode to accompany the show’s Christmas special. But the show’s producers wanted to go in a different direction.
“We thought about it, and we said, Hanukkah does fall at the same time of year, but it doesn’t have the same significance to who we are, and we’ve seen those before,” Lipman said. “We’d like to tell a story that has the same kind of weight that Christmas had. We hadn’t seen a Passover episode before. They were so supportive, and gave us so much leeway to go forward.”
The writers settled on a plot device to allow them to tell the Passover story: Boris has a fight with Minka, then disappears. One by one, they find Boris, who has accidentally locked himself in the attic – and the rest of the characters soon find themselves locked in too. So Boris passes the time by telling them about the Exodus from Egypt.
The main baby characters imagine themselves reenacting the Exodus story. Lipman said that although the episode writers toned some of the more graphic elements of the Passover story, they didn’t have any qualms showcasing what can be a very dark tale.
“All through ‘Rugrats,’ we didn’t stay away from dark or complicated concepts,” she said. “The babies were treated as though their feelings are big, even though their physical presence is not. Our characters would understand, for example, that Pharaoh is a bully” – a perfect quality to be embodied by the character of Angelica.
The Seder story is retold fairly faithfully, though it was Rugratsified – the Hebrew slaves are babies, so Tommy, as Moses, tells Pharaoh to “Let my babies go”; the bickering twins Phil and Lil fight over who is older and therefore at risk from the plague of the death of the firstborn; Chuckie, the hapless sidekick, accidently invents matzah because he forgot to add yeast to the bread.
Lipman said her favorite scene was when Pharaoh Angelica is undisturbed by the threat of the final plague – until she calls her dad and realizes that she is a firstborn child. “I always love when she gets her comeuppance,” Lipman said.
Lipman said that making the episode gave her an unexpected insight into Seders themselves. “I realized that recreating, or retelling, or making something our own, is something that we can all do,” she said. “We’re part of a religion that needs to keep being retold and reminded. That’s why we said Passover was the most significant holiday we could choose. It’s full of tradition and ritual, and we do have to tell the story and make it a personal connection….It’s something that I had to do when I had my own kids later on.”
Chartoff, an actor and writer who often contributes columns to the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, said that when the episode first aired, she had only been to a few Seders as an adult, and so didn’t remember the Passover story before recording the episode. “They made it so simple on the ‘Rugrats’ episode that it educated everybody, including me,” she said.
Years after she recorded the episode, she married a man whose children had been “brought up on the specials.” Her new family celebrated many more Jewish holidays than she was used to, but, she said, “I felt more familiar with them because of my experience playing Minka and Didi.”
Despite the awards nominations and huge TV ratings, the impact of the episode was hard to gauge in the era before social media – though Lipman said that some fans mailed letters to the network saying things like “My kid is now proud to be Jewish.” But as the episode, and a later Hanukkah special, continued to air in reruns, and were played in homes and Sunday schools across America, its popularity grew. Today, it’s the subject of numerous nostalgic articles and listicles — and its impact on Jewish kids was even the subject of a master’s thesis in Jewish studies.
“Kids didn’t feel left out during the Christmas season — they felt like they were part of America, because of the element of the melting pot culture,” Chartoff said. “And the permission for these episodes to air was very gratifying to older Jews. We can be celebrated instead of ostracized or shut out.”
Everyone craps on TV for not being educational enough but the Passover episode of Rugrats was my first exposure to another religion.— Hamsandcastle (@hamsandcastle) April 22, 2016
For Chartoff and Bell, the episode had another significance – through Boris and Minka, the show memorialized the generation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were passing away.
“We don’t have that sound, and that memory and tradition,” Bell said. “It’s a thing of the past. So bringing Grandpa Boris alive vocally was such a treat for me. It’s a memory and testament to my grandmother and grandfather.”
However, the depictions were not without controversy – the Anti-Defamation League complained that Boris and Minka were anti-Semitic stereotypes. Bell, who went on to serve on the Los Angeles chapter board of the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union, said he was infuriated by the charge. “My grandfather looked like that, my grandmother sounded like that,” he said. “Do you think they were supposed to look like Nicole Kidman? They looked like potatoes!”
Due to pressure from the network, “We had to change our actions and depictions a little bit,” Chartoff remembered. “I was told to alter my voice a little bit, to make her a little less of a Yiddish character.”
Chartoff said that her mother was also offended by the character. “I said to my mother that the characters were made to tickle, not to be role models,” she said. “But she was not appeased - her parents had escaped the pogroms. Her sensitivity was very heightened. I made it up to her by buying a condo with the residuals. She’s 95, still alive, living on Didi’s money.”
Lipman is now one of the writers on the Rugrats revival, though she declined to share details about the show or reveal when it would debut. “I asked if I could be on it again, and they said they’d be going with some young celebrities,” Bell said. Chartoff said that Didi would have a reduced presence on the show. As for Boris and Minka? “I think they live in Florida now,” she said.
All involved said that they were heartened that the Jewish characters of “Rugrats” – and the Passover special in particular – has had such an impact on Jewish children.
“Every year, when we read the Hagaddah, I look for ways to make it personally relevant in terms of our own lives and what’s going on around us, because there are different kinds of exoduses and different kinds of freedom,” Lipman said. “So, we can relate to what the babies are looking for.”
How ‘A Rugrats Passover’ became an iconic special