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A great Hanukkah movie would take a miracle

In pop culture, Hanukkah is Christmas’ humble Jewish friend, to whom we occasionally nod and smile
Clockwise from upper left: Eight Crazy Nights (Screenshot), Holiday Date (Photo: Crown Media), Full Court Miracle (Screenshot)
Clockwise from upper left: Eight Crazy Nights (Screenshot), Holiday Date (Photo: Crown Media), Full Court Miracle (Screenshot)
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Adam Sandler’s 2002 Hanukkah vehicle Eight Crazy Nights was very important to me in sixth grade. Even in my fairly Jewish Boston suburb, Christmas culture was not just dominant but default. So when Sandler, our most visible Jewish comedy hero, gave us a holiday movie with a Hanukkah hook, me and my friends lost our minds. I’ll always remember when my Hebrew school class grilled a film critic who belonged to our synagogue about whether he liked Eight Crazy Nights, and we all yelled at him when he told us he hated it. We didn’t care about the dismal reviews. We were just excited to see Hanukkah on the big screen, which made it feel like we were part of the holiday season, too. Yes, it was a juvenile, scatological cartoon musical, but it was our juvenile, scatological cartoon musical.

Hanukkah movies don’t really happen. Christmas is omnipresent in December, and Christmas movies are a genre of their own, with distinct aesthetics, iconography, and no mention of religion necessary. They’re so plentiful that we don’t even expect most of them to be good—a privilege of cultural dominance. In pop culture, Hanukkah is Christmas’ humble Jewish friend, to whom we occasionally nod and smile. Sometimes holiday movies check that box, but it’s purely optional. So what does it look like when Hanukkah has the rare chance to take center stage in holiday films? And why don’t we see more Hanukkah movies?

Over the past few years, both the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime have announced that their annual lineups of holiday originals would include several Hanukkah-themed features, with titles like Holiday Date, Double Holiday, and the more distinguishable Mistletoe & Menorahs. The response was overwhelmingly negative, with critics calling these films’ treatment of Hanukkah cheap and, at worst, anti-Semitic. (Last year, Hallmark’s Love, Lights, Hanukkah! starring Mia Kirshner and Ben Savage, was originally scheduled to air after Hanukkah had ended.) Maybe the impulse to include Hanukkah in these Christmas lineups is well-meaning, but despite the marketing, these aren’t actually Hanukkah movies. They’re Christmas movies, but with a little bit of Hanukkah, as a treat. This year, there appears to be only one Hanukkah movie in the whole Hallmark lineup anyway: Eight Gifts Of Hanukkah, in which a woman searches for her secret admirer.

So as not to stray too far from the rest of the Christmas rom-com programming, the previous Holiday Date, Double Holiday, and Mistletoe & Menorahs feature one romantic lead who celebrates Christmas and one who celebrates Hanukkah. In Holiday Date, a Christian family feels compelled to incorporate Hanukkah into their holiday celebration when, 30 minutes into the movie, their daughter’s date is revealed to be Jewish. We experience and learn about some basic Hanukkah rituals through the eyes of characters for whom it’s both a novelty and a slight inconvenience. They fawn over sufganiyot (traditional jelly doughnuts whose name even the Jewish characters in these films struggle to pronounce), as the father remarks, “Hanukkah tastes just as good as Christmas!” They’re eager to add Hanukkah songs to their repertoire of carols. They even present their Jewish guest with bagel and lox to make him feel more welcome, a cringe-inducing gesture that passes without comment. But mostly, they have a perfect Christmas.

The one Jewish character functions to make the Christian family’s holiday more interesting, not to tell a story about Hanukkah itself. Incorporating Hanukkah only serves to show how accepting and open-minded they are about other traditions. It’s about them. “I don’t want to feel like my holiday is being Christmasplained,” wrote the New York Times’ Nancy Coleman in a review last year. “It’s a giant neon sign to those who celebrate: This Film Isn’t For You. It’s for these other folks, the folks we make movies for all the time, who clearly don’t know what’s up with this stuff.”

Critics were quick to jump on another flaw in the Hallmark and Lifetime offerings: assuming that Jewish characters are clueless about Christmas traditions. Mistletoe & Menorahs is about Christy (Kelley Jakle) and Jonathan (Jake Epstein), who must learn about each other’s winter holidays to impress their respective clients and in-laws. While it’s weird to watch Christy learn what a menorah is, it’s even weirder to see Jonathan fumble with Christmas lights as though he’s never seen them before. In real life, it’s unlikely that those who celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah exclusively are equally uninformed about the holiday they don’t celebrate. Secular Jews are sure to have some basic awareness of Christmas customs, but the opposite isn’t always true. The power imbalance also makes it uncomfortable to watch outnumbered Jewish characters forced to embrace gentile traditions.

In the Hallmark and Lifetime lineups, Judaism is often reduced to a plot point and a quirk for the romances to overcome. Christian characters’ introductions to “exotic” Hanukkah traditions are a purposeful othering of Jewish people to make for functional stories. Simply showing non-Jewish characters learning about latkes and candle blessings isn’t a great way to make Jewish viewers feel welcome. Similar to other cases of tokenism, including Hanukkah doesn’t actually make these films inclusive; it’s important to note that all these movies only depict the white, Ashkenazi Jewish experience.

But it’s the ultimate Christmas focus of these movies that hints at a deeper reason we don’t see more holiday films oriented around Hanukkah. Rather than for its own place in Judaism, Hanukkah often exists in American consciousness only in relation to Christmas. While culture suggests the two holidays hold equal weight, Hanukkah isn’t the holiday juggernaut the pairing would suggest. Its identity is murkier. In pop culture, it’s hard to make Hanukkah feel like “the holidays” without Christmas as an anchor.

Hanukkah wasn’t always a big moment on the Jewish calendar. The once minor holiday’s popularity as a highly visible winter celebration is a fairly recent American development, evolving both from its proximity to Christmas and from Jewish immigrants’ assimilation into the secular cultural sphere, as Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic. Promoting Hanukkah to its current Christmas-esque status, and even expanding the gift-giving element, was a way for Jews to be part of American culture while retaining their Jewish identity. Hanukkah isn’t just inextricably linked to Christmas because of Christmas’ influence; Jewish communities purposefully created those parallels.

Hanukkah’s origins are a far cry from where it now sits. It commemorates a historical victory over oppressive forces, like many Jewish holidays, as well as an accompanying miracle. But it also recounts the story of a group of fundamentalist Jews who rejected the assimilation of Hellenistic Jews in ancient Judea. (Ironic, given that the most assimilated American Jews are likelier to celebrate Hanukkah than high holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.) It’s a rich, meaningful, and beloved holiday, even with the added secular sheen, but scrape away the aesthetics and you won’t find the same seasonal cheer we associate with Christmas.

It makes sense that Hanukkah’s American pop culture identity is as diluted as its religious identity. It now appears with its own colors and iconography like a bizzaro-world Christmas, itself commercialized and divorced from its own religious origins. Perhaps when Hallmark and Lifetime give Hanukkah a tacky Christmas treatment, it’s not totally off-base, because the American version of Hanukkah, while nice, is kind of tacky, too. But claiming these films are Hanukkah movies in their own right feels silly and occasionally offensive. Even if Hanukkah is depicted decently, like in the surprisingly palatable Double Holiday, the Christmas genre shouldn’t be the framework for how we understand a Jewish holiday.

Still, if you make a contemporary Hanukkah holiday movie and don’t acknowledge Christmas’ inescapability, you’re ignoring how many Jewish people experience the season. Most of the few Hanukkah holiday movies that exist are intimately aware of the holiday’s place in American winter celebrations. Eight Crazy Nights takes the loose form of an animated Christmas special, set in a small town that feels like if Bedford Falls also had a few Jewish residents. Sandler, in a triple role, voices Davey Stone, an alcoholic man with a tragic past who hates the holidays, as well as two elderly, non-Jewish siblings who take Davey in when his home burns down. The redemption story is almost sweet enough to overshadow all the fecal gags Sandler could never show in his live-action films. But poop aside, the movie stands as one of the more accurate, contemporary centerings of Hanukkah amid the Christmas season in pop culture.

While Hanukkah is the headliner, Eight Crazy Nights doesn’t ignore the bigger holiday that looms over December. A giant ice sculpture of Santa Claus stands in the town square alongside one of a menorah, as a symbol of inclusivity. The mayor addresses a banquet hall before the film’s finale, wishing “Merry Christmas” to the residents and receiving a loud response, while his “Happy Hanukkah” is met with a few timid Jewish voices who recognize the humor in their small numbers. The interfaith holiday spirit is warm and utopian, but the film reminds viewers that even an explicitly Hanukkah-themed movie needs to take place in a Christmas world. The Jewish characters know how this goes.

The 2003 blaxploitation parody The Hebrew Hammer, featuring Adam Goldberg as the titular gun-toting Jewish hero, takes another approach but similarly positions Hanukkah as an underdog. Its plot mirrors the “saving Christmas” storyline of countless holiday films and TV specials, here repurposed as our hero tries to save Hanukkah from Santa Claus’ evil son, Damian (Andy Dick). While incorporating cultural touchstones from across the Semitic spectrum into its parody, The Hebrew Hammer defines Hanukkah’s existence only in relation to Christmas, its direct competitor. The story is a comedic heightening of Hanukkah’s identity erasure, but the film’s entire premise is aware of the absurdity of treating Hanukkah with such weight. “It isn’t even one of the high holidays,” the Hammer’s Jewish mother remarks, belittling him after he’s saved Hanukkah from eradication.

In an inspired sequence, Damian distributes bootleg copies of It’s A Wonderful Life to brainwash Jewish children across the country into celebrating Christmas. The only antidote? The Hammer’s stash of Yentl and The Chosen on VHS. It’s telling that even in the world of this parody film, there isn’t a Hanukkah alternative to rival the Frank Capra classic. How can you compete when Hanukkah’s own pop culture appeal is second fiddle to Christmas?

Eight Crazy Nights and The Hebrew Hammer are both self-aware sendups of other genres, and while their focus is more Jewish, they still lean on Christmas to tell their stories. The only film that can fully claim to embody Hanukkah on its own is the Disney Channel Original Movie Full-Court Miracle. With only one passing mention of Christmas, Full-Court Miracle keeps its action within an observant Jewish day school community, where the struggling basketball team finds an unlikely coach in a non-Jewish former college player. The film maps the Hanukkah stories of Judah Maccabee and the miracle of the oil onto a conventional sports narrative, effectively making Hanukkah’s true meaning, not just its American meaning, more central to its plot than in any other mainstream film. It’s an undeniable Hanukkah movie, but by avoiding Christmas entirely, it also avoids all holiday tropes and mood. Without snow on the ground or sleigh bells on the soundtrack, it’s not a holiday film at all.

Eight Crazy Nights, The Hebrew Hammer, and Full-Court Miracle all debuted between 2002 and 2003, an apparent onscreen apex for Hanukkah, which also saw The OC introduce its “Chrismukkah” hybrid celebration. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any other Hanukkah movies since, aside from a low-budget slasher flick last year simply titled Hanukkah, featuring a “Hanukiller” who carves a “scar of David” into his victims’ skin. (It’s got a great promo image, featuring a skeletal menorah, but it’s still inspired by the tradition of Christmas horror films.) Hanukkah appears occasionally in films with Jewish characters, like when we catch a glimpse of a backward menorah in Call Me By Your Name. Meanwhile, the historical Hanukkah origin story of the Maccabean Revolt has never received a big-budget film adaptation; an attempt to make one was spearheaded by noted anti-Semite Mel Gibson and thankfully shelved. Conventional wisdom might suggest Hanukkah movies just don’t make sense financially, but perhaps their absence has more to do with the elusive meaning of the holiday. It’s much easier to make a Christmas movie than to attempt to distill Hanukkah into something that still captures what we expect from holiday films.

And that’s fine. Jewish filmgoers can enjoy Christmas movies as much as anyone else. It’s nice to be included, but Christmas movies disguised as Hanukkah movies aren’t the way to scratch the itch. I’ll take The Hebrew Hammer and Eight Crazy Nights over the Hallmark and Lifetime stuff, since they at least depict Hanukkah on its own terms. Having some Hanukkah movie options during the Christmas season is only a good thing. I love Hanukkah, but if we need an innocuous Jewish holiday rom-com, how about one with two Jewish leads who fall in love during Christmas, the holiday neither of them celebrate but can still experience as a pleasant backdrop? No Hanukkah necessary, and still a true holiday experience.