Chanukah on the Silver Screen: How Media Makes a Holiday

Tommy and Chuckie from the Rugrats Chanukah special
Tommy and Chuckie study Torah in secret during the “Rugrats” retelling of the Chanukah story. (YouTube screenshot)

This holiday season, the Hallmark Channel added two movies with Jewish characters to its lineup.

And that won’t be the only new milestone this winter for the Festival of Lights.

In September, Disney announced its first Jewish princess would debut on “Elena of Avalor,” to the delight of Jewish Disney fans everywhere. The new Sephardic princess, who will be voiced by Jamie-Lynn Sigler (“The Sopranos”), will appear on a Chanukah-themed episode of the show.

Over the decades, Chanukah has taken on an increasingly visible role in American culture.

Americans see Chanukah in giant public menorah lightings, in the blue-and-white holiday cards that sit next to the red-and-green ones during December, and in movies and on television screens. Children might see the “Shalom Sesame” characters learning about Chanukah, while adults might see some tongue-in-cheek jokes about the holiday on shows like “Saturday Night Live” or “The Colbert Report” Christmas special.

But that wasn’t always the story.

In the early days of television, there was a “tug of war” over Jewish representation in media, explained Eric A. Goldman, film historian and author of “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema,” among other works. Some early television shows might have a Jewish episode, where perhaps a rabbi might drop in. Many TV writers were Jewish, but they understood that, as Jews made up only a small fraction of audiences, it didn’t make sense to write for them.

That started to change in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Goldman said, when Chanukah began to feature more prominently in public life. One early portrayal comes from a TV series called “Thirtysomething,” in which an interfaith couple navigates celebrating Chanukah and Christmas.

“It crept in,” Goldman noted. “Adam Sandler deserves a lot of credit.”

In 1994, during a Weekend Update segment on “Saturday Night Live,” Sandler introduced the world to “The Hanukkah Song.” In it, he names a number of Jewish celebrities.

“Saturday Night Live” uploaded the clip to YouTube in 2013, and it has garnered more than 3.4 million views. Other videos of the song on YouTube have generated millions of more views. In 2002, Sandler released “Eight Crazy Nights,” as well.

Media like this “truly contributed to it being a sense of pride, and hey, it’s our turn now to put forward our holiday,” Goldman said.

Chanukah specials can provide an opportunity for characters to navigate the complexity of interfaith relationships, a reality for most non-Orthodox Jews. In 2003, “The O.C.” popularized the term “Chrismukkah.” In one episode of “Friends,” Ross, dressed in an armadillo costume, teaches his son about Chanukah.

“As interfaith marriage grew and grew and grew, and interfaith marriages were more a reality in this country, Chanukah became more and more ever present,” Goldman said.

Chanukah became especially important to children, who might feel a twinge of jealousy when they see their Christian friends partaking in Christmas celebrations (and those Christmas presents). Children’s media has a lot to offer those children, too, while teaching non-Jewish children about Judaism.

An American Tail” opens with a scene of the Mousekewitz family celebrating Chanukah. There’s also the “Rugrats” Chanukah special, which children of the ‘90s and early 2000s recall with nostalgia. Examples like these give children a great sense of pride as they grow up, Goldman said.

Chanukah also fills an educational role in children’s media, explained Pamela Nadell, director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University and past president of the Association for Jewish Studies.

“It’s a part of the notion of educating our children to understanding the diverse groups that are in American society,” Nadell said. “We have this sense of we’ve got Chanukah, we’ve got Kwanzaa and we’ve got Christmas all falling at the same time. The U.S. Post Office is going to issue a Chanukah stamp, alongside its wealth of Christmas stamps. … It’s a way of expressing one’s Jewish identity, of recognizing the diversity of America’s Jews.”

Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, and its friendly symbols of lights, latkes and dreidels, make it an easy choice for children’s media, said Diane Ashton, professor at Rowan University and author of “Hanukkah in America: A History.”

“The fact that Chanukah is visible in popular media has spread the expectation that this is the standard thing to do and here’s how to do it,” Ashton said. “Popular culture is very instructive. It really tells people what is expected of them in many ways. It’s done that for Chanukah.”

The visibility of Chanukah, compared to other Jewish holidays, extends beyond media, too. One example is the public giant menorah lightings that Chabad organizes in cities across the country. There aren’t giant seder plates, Goldman noted, or giant sukkahs on Park Avenue.

That is all despite the fact that Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday. As the Jewish mom in “The Hebrew Hammer” tells her crime-fighting son after he saves Chanukah: “It isn’t even one of the High Holidays. Now, if you had saved Yom Kippur or Passover, you might have what to brag about.”

But the elevation of Chanukah doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

“It’s sort of a statement that we live in a culture where we don’t have one religion,” Goldman said. “There is no state religion, and we recognize that Judaism is part of the Judeo-Christian fabric. The rabbis aren’t necessarily happy with it, but Chanukah has become the preeminent Jewish holiday in America, especially for children.”

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