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The curse of pop-culture Chanukah

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"The Night Before' movie poster

We need to talk about Chanukah movies.

Forget the quiet on-screen marginalization of us every Christmas season – the predictability of never seeing our culture properly represented during the holidays, because, well, there just aren’t enough Jews to fill theatres across America.

And forget, even, the overwhelming fetishization of Jewish people in Christmas specials – the moment when funny-sounding Yiddishisms puncture otherwise wholesome family moments with the politically correct realization that not everyone celebrates Christmas, and we must all politely smile when other cultures raise this fact.

No, the question I’d like answered is a much simpler one: Why isn’t there at least one decent movie about this holiday?

READ: Chanukah – the greatest Hollywood blockbuster never told

There are only two true Chanukah movies – The Hebrew Hammer (which was hilarious when I was 15 and cringe-worthy on a recent viewing) and Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights (summarized by Rotten Tomatoes as a “nauseating concoction” with a 12 per cent rating).

"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moscowitz" episode of 'Frasier'
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” episode of ‘Frasier’

Of course, there are a handful of Chanukah mentions in TV specials and made-for-TV movies; some are decent, though most are redundant. The most trite gag involves the obviously-not-Jewish lead pretending to be Jewish for the sake of some potential romantic interest’s stuffy Jewish parents. Frasier Crane played this role excellently in the Emmy-winning episode of Frasier  “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz,” while lesser attempts, like the Hallmark Channel’s Hitched for the Holidays, starring rising Canadian talent Emily Hampshire, expand the same joke Frasier pulled off in 22 minutes in a belabouring 87.

Inevitably, any Jew who feels like cozying up next to the chanukiyah lights with jelly doughnuts and latkes and some feel-good on-screen amusement ends up watching the 66th episode of Rugrats. Either that or a Christmas special. Because, hey, when you want dumb holiday entertainment, you understand that you’re the minority, and Hollywood not accurately representing your religion is probably not the biggest problem facing Jewish people today.

'Rugrats' Chanukah special
‘Rugrats’ Chanukah special

But that’s part of the problem: our onscreen holiday-era marginalization has become status quo. Jews have had no trouble with on-screen historical or dramatic representation in general – movies and shows generally don’t shy away from featuring Jewish characters, and we’ll always have Fiddler – but, for some reason, holiday specials have eluded us.

I don’t believe this is because Christmas is too “sacred” a Christian thing – the holiday’s slow devolution into generic well-wishes of “Happy Holidays” signifies a willingness by companies and producers to include all religions in one broad stroke.

That’s a nice thought, but it sort of misses the point. Jews don’t want to erase Christmas specials or the word “Merry” from coffee cups. It would be much nicer to see a bit of our own culture represented in the world without it being a punchline in an episode of Frasier.

What I’m asking for is a Love Actually for Jews, or even The Holiday. Nothing whimsical – just a public reminder that pleasant winter movies can be set against a Jewish backdrop. Or, conversely, as journalist Evan Scott Schwartz has written, the story of the Maccabees has all the right bones for a 300-meets-Exodus biblical Hollywood epic.

Instead, the direction in which we seem to be heading is toward constant bland inclusivity; Seth Rogen’s latest picture, The Night Before, is a perfect example of an “everyone welcome” holiday movie that takes pains to address Judaism and Christianity in more or less equal measure.

Adam Sandler in 'Eight Crazy Night's
Adam Sandler in ‘Eight Crazy Night’s

Except I don’t want to cozy up in my sofa next to chanukiyah lights with jelly doughnuts and latkes and watch Rogen vomit in the middle of a church. Nor do I (always) want to watch that brilliant Rugrats episode for the 38th time, nor do I want to pretend that Eight Crazy Nights is worth watching even once.

No, it would be much more comforting if I could turn on the TV and see something I recognized – a Jew neither fetishized, marginalized nor made into a stereotypical punchline, but rather depicted as a human being celebrating a silly holiday in December.