‘TIS THE SEASON when television absolutely abounds with holiday movies; but not about Hanukkah. The Hallmark channels, known for their spanky clean love stories and happily everafters, run Christmas themed movies 24 hours a day from Halloween on. Why aren’t there any Hanukkah movies?
Isn’t it possible to translate those happy holiday themes into a Hanukkah story? Let’s see if we can. Imagine this: a plucky young female Jewish architect is given the opportunity to design a winter sports resort, if she can convince the handsome Jewish widower with three adorable children to sell his winter home and land. She arrives during Hanukkah, surprised to find no sign of the holiday. Of course, there is instant animosity between the two and when a snowstorm forces her to spend the next few days at his home. She spends her time happily telling the children the story of Hanukkah, teaching them Hanukkah songs, making potato latkes, and bringing the light of the holiday into the home. Of course, the children fall in love with her and you can guess the rest. What do you think? Plausible?
If Jews are supposed to control the media, isn’t it strange that our culture that has such a rich history and vibrant presence would go almost entirely ignored by the movies? True, there are some pathetic attempts at Hanukkah themed films, Adams Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights” and “The Hebrew Hammer,” but they are hardly representative of the holiday or its message. And, there have been some Hanukkah themed episodes of various television shows. Hanukkah celebrations show up in movies like “Little Fockers” or TV shows like “The O.C.” and “Friends,” but there isn’t much beyond that. In reality, Hanukkah isn’t a major holiday. However, it is because of its proximity to Christmas that Hanukkah has become such a big celebration. There was a time when it was all about the menorah, candles, dreidels and latkes. Today, Hanukkah decorations include strings of lights and all manner of decorations. And this is largely an American phenomenon. It is interesting that a holiday that celebrates Jews defeating assimilation has become a truly Americanized holiday.
But the fact is that Hanukkah doesn’t easily lend itself to holiday cheer. Hanukkah is a fundamentally different holiday than Christmas. As Charles Bramesco points out in an article on Vox on line, “The story of Hanukkah is that of suffering and hardship: The Maccabees had just survived a brutal conflict with the Greeks, when the ragged surviving Hebrews made their last bit of lamp oil stick for eight days. The great miracle of Christmas is the arrival of Jesus, but the great miracle of Hanukkah was keeping the lights on in the rubble-strewn aftermath of a costly war.”
Suffering and hardship may make great drama, “but not exactly spritely seasonal cheer, which box-office receipts have determined to be the prevailing tone for holiday movies,” adds Bramescu.
The major themes of Jewish American life in the 20th Century are all represented on film. As Michael Liss writes on Decider.com, “The original immigration experience of crossing over and trying to establish a new home, followed by the assimilation of the second and third generations into greater American culture. The Holocaust and coming to grips with its aftermath – the subtle and less-subtle prevalence of anti-Semitism in post-war general society. And finally, there is the nostalgia for the Old World or the good old days when the cycle first began, and for the experience of our grandparents.”
These themes do not make for the kind of Hanukkah movie one may seek. But there are a good number of films celebrating Judaism or Jewish culture, and perhaps any one or more of those may satisfy the need for a holiday movie. However, if you long for the possibility of a Hanukkah themed movie in the “holiday” tradition, take a look at Entertainment Weekly’s article at http://ew.com/article/2014/12/16/hanukkah-movie-poster/.
The article suggests a Hanukkah movie written in the style of “Valentine’s Day,” “New Year’s Eve” and “Love Actually;” a “lighthearted ensemble rom-coms featuring intertwining stories and scads of celebrities. “So, the article asks, why not the Jewish Festival of Lights. As I read the synopsis of the film, I chuckled. It did sound as ridiculous as the current holiday fare.
And so, we are left with the realization that Hanukkah does not lend itself to a traditional holiday themed film. Perhaps it is because of the themes, but perhaps it is also the fact the Jewish experience is not the American experience of small white washed towns, where city living and sophistication are always eschewed for simple values. But I forget! These films are not supposed to represent reality they are pure escapism during a holiday season that is known for causing bouts of depression in many people.
But let’s return to our plucky young architect; rather than convincing the handsome widower to sell his property to her boss, they go into business together and develop their own resort that celebrates all the Jewish holidays. They name the place Menorah Manor– “your place for a real Jewish holiday experience.” You buy that?
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.