Every American Hanukkah special, movie and TV episode worth knowing about
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hanukkah’s profile has grown over the years due to its proximity to Christmas. It’s also true that because of this nearness, it is the Jewish holiday the most Christians are familiar with. And yet, while Jews are said to control the entertainment industry, we’ve made our greatest festive contributions to popular culture with Yuletide offerings (Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Barbra Streisand’s “A Christmas Album,” “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”)
We haven’t made such a big deal about Hanukkah. Most of us can either name all the TV specials that feature the Festival of Lights in a short order or have to strain our brains to think of more than two. Hanukkah songs that reached the masses? Adam Sandler cornered the market with an updated Jewish phone book that white nationalists surely had on file before the advent of the Twitter echo. But, in the interest of inclusivity, there are more options for Hanukkah content each year.
The White House recognizes the holiday (celebrating it early, and often before sundown) and, in the current regime, in defiance of CDC guidelines. The Orwellian Elf on the Shelf met his match in the Kafkaesque Mensch on a Bench, who has recently been by a tallit-wearing “Snow Mensch.” There are Hanukkah bushes, Hanukkah ornaments and ugly Hanukkah sweaters. There is now a lamentable cottage industry for RBG hanukkiahs. We appear to be in a Hanukkah boom. It’s only right that we match this uptick with our consumption of TV.
Here is a rundown of the most significant cultural artifacts commemorating our little zealously-armed resistance to Hellenic assimilation in 165 BCE.
Rugrats, “A Rugrats Chanukah” (1996)
Who could forget the iconic declaration of resolve, “A Macababy’s gotta do what a Macababy’s gotta do?” This special has it all: Yiddish-accented grandparents complaining of latke heartburn; an Old Country feud between two old men at a Hanukkah pageant; a gigantic, malfunctioning mechanical menorah and Angelica’s indelible instruction “Hanukkah. You have to CHUH when you say it.”
Lloyd in Space, “Cheery Theerlap, Lloyd” (2002)
While not strictly a Hanukkah episode, this entry addresses a vital part of the Jewish-American experience: Feeling left out, or even embarrassed, come the holiday season.
Lloyd, a green, antennaed alien doesn’t celebrate his space station chums’ holiday of Droimatz. It falls on him to educate his teachers and classmates about his own holiday, Theerlap, for a school concert.
But when Lloyd learns that the holiday’s 3,000-year-old miracle is about a time when his ancestors subsisted on briny pulp-gourd cakes until a rocket of new provisions arrived six days later, he’s disappointed. Dreading the reaction of his peers, Lloyd zazzes up the narrative by making Theerlap an epic story of battle and lava monsters complete with delicious candy and its own hip-hop track, “The Freshy Phat Theerlap Rap.” Everyone loves Lloyd’s version of the holiday. All except for his Grandpa Leo, who calls Lloyd’s Theerlap pageant a “festival of lies.”
In the end, Lloyd learns that Theerlap’s act of remembrance is plenty special without all the embellishments. “Theerlap ain’t about excitement,” Grandpa Leo tells him. “It’s about you and showing your respect for everyone who made you possible.”
Friends, “The One with the Holiday Armadillo” (2000)
With his son, Ben, home for the holidays, divorced dad Ross hopes to teach the tot about Hanukkah. Ben prefers the Christmas traditions of his mothers, and is less than thrilled at the prospect of a Yuletide without Santa. Ross attempts to save the day by dressing up as Saint Nick, but is unable to rent the trademark red suit. The result: The Holiday Armadillo, who serves as Hanukkah’s brand ambassador to Ben, who quickly loses interest when Chandler shows up dressed as Kris Kringle. Then, Joey shows up as Superman, confusing everyone.
The Nanny, “The Hanukkah Story” (1998)
(No clips of this episode exist on YouTube, but enjoy Fran Drescher’s Hanukkah greeting.)
The only Hanukkah special to feature Ray Charles, this episode finds Fran Fine frying up latkes for her first holiday as a member of the Sheffield family. But life made other plans. Fran’s new hubby (and former employer), Maxwell, heads out for business in Boston with his youngest, Gracie, leaving Fran to reminisce with her mom and grandma over Hanukkahs past.
Stay for the butler, Niles, saying “rugelach” in a posh English accent; a little girl doing a Fran Drescher impression; and a miraculous reunion involving a nun.
Even Stevens, “Heck of a Hanukkah” (2000)
Louis ruins the first night of Hanukkah by accidentally dropping all the gifts outside of his bedroom window. He gets grounded for Hanukkah and, George Bailey-style, wishes he was never born. On a gust of wind, his Bubbe Rose (Louis calls her “Booby”) appears to show him what life for the Stevens clan would be like without him.
Instead of having a fun trouble-maker in Louis, the Stevenses have an annoying overachiever named Curtis who runs the house like a little despot. Louis gets his alternate universe family to laugh for the first time in years by making a roast chicken breakdance and wearing the bird on his head while leading them in a conga line. He realizes his family needs his spark of mischief after all and, returning to his own timeline, lights the candles with them.
Elena of Avalor, “Festival of Lights”
In this 2019 Hanukkah episode of “Elena of Avalor,” Disney introduced its first official Jewish princess (Vannelope von Schweetz has not been acknowledged by Bobs Iger and Chapek, alas). Rebeca is an intrepid, adventuring royal from the fictional Jewish kingdom of Galonia — and she’s Latinx. It’s neat to see non-Ashkenazi Hanukkah customs represented here. Bimuelos, a Sephardic Hanukkah treat, are featured and a song sung about the meaning of the holiday has a Latin flavor — but drifts into klezmer a bit, too.
Many noticed when she debuted that Rebeca uses a lot of Yiddish words, referring to her grandmother as “Bubbe” and introducing Princess Elena to the practice of “noshing.” Alas, as Irene Katz Connelly noted in these pages, this could have been a good opportunity to introduce conversational Ladino, where Bubbes are “Nonnas” or “Avuelas.” Still, it’s not so bad as animated Hanukkah specials go.
INTO THE SANDLER-VERSE
Adam Sandler, “Chanukah Song” I-IV (1994-2015)
This irregular holiday release did some good since it first debuted on SNL’s Weekend Update in 1994 (on an episode hosted by the regrettable-in-hindsight Rosanne Barr — never mentioned in any version of the song, though ex Tom Arnold is). Sandler’s song has given the Jewish people much, including introducing the Natalie Portman portmanteau “Portmanukkah” in the third installment. Most recently, Sandler claimed both Elsa and Olaf of “Frozen” for the Jews (also Jesus.) In a major slight, though, he names Jake Gyllenhaal and not sister, Maggie.
“Eight Crazy Nights” (2002)
I didn’t want to rewatch this regrettable animated musical feature from 2002, but I remember it well enough — sadly. The film involves a treacly story of orphanhood around Hanukkah set in Sandler’s native New Hampshire and using his voice talents for Davey, an alcoholic recidivist. It also features a sequence with an elderly man who gets pushed down a snowy hill in a porta-potty — deer show up to lap up frozen excrement. (Checking Wikipedia, this awful gag was a significant enough plot point to be included in the synopsis.)
Ugh, there are jokes at the expense of diabetics, kids with Gynecomastia and epileptics. There is a musical number in a mall highlighting the singing voices of lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, the panda from Panda Express and a Sharper Image chair. I guess it ends with a message about giving back to the community and sacrifice or something. Anyway, skip it, unless you’re dying to see the performance that won the Sandman a Kids’ Choice Award for Best Voice in an Animated Movie.
REGRETTABLE MENTIONS AND NEW (SKIPPABLE) TRADITIONS
Disney Channel, “Full-Court Miracle” (2003)
This Hanukkah sports film gives us a look at life at a Philadelphia Hebrew academy while also offering compelling historical details about the Maccabean revolt.
But the conceit of the film, in which an injured former pro basketball player Lamont Carr coaches a team of yeshiva youth to victory is — you guessed it, extremely problematic — buying whole challah into the Magical Negro trope. Lamont is even believed by some in the team to be the ghost of Judah Macabbee.
You will cringe as these pasty Jewish teens affect a hip-hop strut and call each other “Dog” to a rap remix of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” You will question the choice to make Carr live out of a van and leave his high school sweetheart and their child while he pursues his hoop dreams in another state. Most of all, you will balk at the notion that Carr, a gentile attending his first Shabbat dinner, would love his maiden bite of gefilte fish.
The OC, “Christmukkah” episodes (2003-2007)
We have “The OC” to thank for the word Christmukkah, a collision many interfaith families find appealing for its promised blend of holiday traditions. The teen soap showed the Cohen family having Christmukkah every year. Seth evangelized the holiday, with its traditions of “Yamaclaus” (red kippahs with a fur lining and a Santa-esque pom poms) and Magen David-embroidered stockings hung by the mantle beneath a menorah.
But truly, now that this term is used as a catch-all for the winter holidays, we find it insufficient. After all, other cultures have holidays around this time of year. We propose ChrismahanukwanzaasolstidiwalipasadosChinesenewyear.
The Goldbergs, “Super Hanukkah” episodes (2015-Present)
Beverly Goldberg, matriarch of the titular ‘80s family, has for years been a notorious flack for “Super Hanukkah,” a revamped version of the holiday complete with festive foliage (Hanukkah Bush), phlegm-producing libations (Hannunog), and blue-and-white candy canes (holiday “Js”.) In other words, she reproduced Christmas. Her dad, Pops, was none too thrilled with this development.
In later seasons Pops does get in the spirit, urging his grandchildren to enter their holiday pageant with a new Hanukkah song, and dressing up like Hanukkah Harry of SNL fame. Beverly, for her part, ups the Super Hanukkah revels by wearing increasingly elaborate Hanukkah sweaters — recently one that lights up and plays music. It’s a far cry from a conventional Hanukkah, but a believable response to a Jewish family’s December Dilemma.
Lifetime, “Mistletoe & Menorahs”
A girl (Christy, naturally) needs to land an account with Jewish clients, so she recruits her co-worker’s Jewish friend to learn about Hanukkah in a cunning stratagem to impress these Jews who celebrate their obscure holiday shrouded in darkness.
There’s a quid pro quo here, as the co-worker’s friend (Jonathan), needs her help to decorate his apartment for Christmas (because Jews can’t figure tinsel out, I guess?) Romantic feelings develop alongside reciprocal respect of traditions. Yes, American Jews need to learn to appreciate the significance of a hegemonic holiday we know everything about already because we have pulses and live in America.
NEW THIS YEAR (2020)
Hallmark “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!”
Last year, Hallmark gave us the regrettable gift of two “Hanukkah” films, “Holiday Date” and “Double Holiday.” While billed as such, they were really just Christmas movies with Jewish characters that posit that a gentile character would be better at Hanukkah stuff than a Jew and that — somehow — a secular Jew would have great difficulty knowing how to celebrate Christmas.
But fear not! The channel is back this year to switch up the formula. In “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!,” out December a woman named Christina (Christy, Christina — what’s going on here), decorating her restaurant for Christmas, learns via a DNA test that she’s actually been Jewish the entire time! This revelation means that she — a Jew — will be learning about one of our minor holidays with a new family. Why Hallmark can’t just bite the bullet and have a non-Christmas-proximate Hanukkah special is beyond me. But if this movie’s anything like the other ones, we can be sure that Christina will get Hanukkah right on her first try, effortlessly improving upon a family latke recipe and foisting a bit of Christmas cheer on an unsuspecting Jewish family.
Next year Hallmark, could you just leave us alone? We’ll but a Hanukkah greeting card, we swear — just no more movies, please.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow.