Tonight, like many Jews around the world, I will be dusting off my menorah and scarfing down a number of store-bought latkes (who has time to grate eight pounds of potatoes on a weeknight?). The first night of Hanukkah means a chance to take the ol' dreidel out for a spin, pass out some gelt, and reflect on the miracle that allowed Judaism to survive for another 2,000+ years after King Antiochus decided to squash it.
But every year, I also reflect on the fact that the one thing missing from this lovely ritual is a truly great Hanukkah film.
For those of you about to say, "But what about Eight Crazy Nights?," I'll just cut you off right now. The Hebrew Hammer, while delightfully meta and especially timely given its current crowdfunding for a sequel, doesn't really count either. Over on TV, The O.C. kind of hits the mark with Chrismukkah, but there are too many Christmas elements for it to be a true Hanukkah story. And while I love the Holiday Armadillo on Friends as much as the next person, it's TV, and thereby excluded from this narrative.
I'm talking about a real, watch-every-year, hotly-debate-over-Twitter, cosy-up-in-front-of-the-shamash-candle type holiday movie. Like Love Actually, but with Jews instead of British actors from Harry Potter.
"When you make the list, the same titles get put on there, and everybody stops at about four or five," Thompson joked on our phone call.
There are a couple of reasons that can account for the dearth of Hanukkah entertainment, he explained.
The first of these has to do with simple demographics. In 2013, the Pew Research Center estimated that there were 5.3 million Jews of varying levels of religious observance living in the United States. That comes out to roughly 2.2% of the total population. So, already, that indicates a significantly lower demand for Hanukkah films.
Still, Thompson points out, "Hanukkah is now the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the country, even though it's by far not the the most important Jewish holiday, and part of that has to do with its Christmas-adjacency on the calendar."
But unlike Christmas, Hanukkah never took off in a massive way outside the Jewish community, in part because most of what is considered current "classic" Christmas entertainment isn't very religiously based. "They've got some righteous language in them, but most of them are not explicitly religious," Thompson explained, pointing to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol as the main example. "This idea of a person who isn't in the Christmas spirit and has to be frightened into it — even It's A Wonderful Life has got a little bit of that."
Hanukkah, with its biblical Maccabees and miracle of oil lasting for eight days, hasn't really hammered down that magical festive secular narrative. Part of is due to a lack of opportunity. While the Victorian era set the stage for the decorated tree, gingerbread cookies, and glowing fires associated with Yule, television and Hollywood were responsible for crafting some of the most memorable icons that give us that nostalgic pull of childhood every year. And ironically, despite a strong Jewish presence in those industries, the symbols of Hanukkah — latkes, dreidels, and menorahs — weren't really highlighted, partly because these relatively recent Jewish immigrants in charge of the studios and networks were afraid of appearing too niche, at the cost of the wider audience. As a result, Hanukkah didn't have a chance to develop such secular icons as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the fluffy-bearded Coca Cola Santa Claus. And then of course, there was the fear of discrimination, which sadly feels more relevant than ever these days.
"A lot of people making entertainment during [the 1950s and '60s] figured that A) Most of the country wasn't Jewish, and B) They were aware that there was a lot of anti-Semitism," Thompson said. "So, you had shows starring Jewish comedians, and they would have their Christmas episodes, and they never mentioned Hanukkah."
In an industry that's constantly re-inventing the wheel (how many Spider-man reboots are we at? I can't keep track) Hanukkah represents virgin territory, just waiting to be mined for blockbusters. How about a biopic about Antiochus (tyrant, or misunderstood leader)? A never-before-seen account of the women behind the Maccabees (you know Judah didn't do all of that alone)?
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