A Brief History of Hollywood and Hanukkah

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Adam Sandler's films sometimes hint at Judaism and sometimes center around Jewish themes explicitly, such as his animated ode to Hanukkah - 'Eight Crazy Nights'.Credit: AP

Hanukkah – in America at least – is a poor man’s Christmas; it is celebrated in the West perhaps only because it coincides with the holiday season there. Otherwise, as we know, it’s a minor and hence rather negligible holiday in Judaism. Nonetheless, it has appeared frequently on American television – the best example possibly being the “Hanukkah Armadillo” in the long-running series "Friends". In comparison, though, when surveying American film from its origins to the present, the number of Hanukkah representations in the twentieth century is surprisingly thin, and the emergence of Hanukkah on the big screen is only a very recent phenomenon.

Certainly, during the heyday of the Hollywood Studio System from the 1930s until the mid-1950s, Hanukkah never appeared on screen. This was because the Jewish studio heads preferred to hide their ethnic and religious heritage in attempting to widen the appeal of their products. Jews were thus typically portrayed as participants in an American civil religion, whose members may attend the synagogue of their choice, but are not otherwise marked by great differences of appearance, speech, custom, or behaviour from the vast majority of Americans. Consequently, historically, representations of Judaism downplayed any peculiarities that might mark Jews out as being different. Films focussed on Jews celebrating Thanksgiving and other non-Jewish and/or civic holidays. This was part of an assimilatory drive in which Jews (and hence Judaism) were presented as being similar to Gentiles.

If Jewish festivals were presented on film, those which had Christian analogues, such as Hanukkah and Passover, were emphasised as being almost the same as Christmas and Easter respectively (if not quite). One of the most notable examples of this was the Oscar-winning adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" in 1959.  The film, intriguingly, greatly exaggerated the significance of the festival of Hanukkah in comparison to the original book. What was a passing mention was expanded into a ten-minute sequence, which became the dramatic high point of the film, featuring the candle-lighting and exchange of gifts. However, in so doing, ittransformed Hanukkah from an explicitly Jewish festival to a signifier of U.S. religion in general.As a result, the specifically Jewish Hanukkah was universalized, in the film, for its American audiences, as prayers and songs in the film were conducted in English rather than Hebrew.

Following the collapse of the studio system in in the 1960s, many independent Jewish directors were often meticulously non-specific in religious terms, if featuring any identifiable religious practice at all. Jews on film were typically drained of any religious content. Exhibiting no identifiably religious characteristics, they were distinguishable – for those that could read the signs – by a series of ethnic markers such as physical appearance, names, profession and locality. This was because many Jewish directors perceived themselves in secular, ethnic terms, and religion played little part in their personal lives, with few practicing Judaism in any form. As a result, their work was clearly uninformed by any religious practice or study and almost nothing in terms of religious education or shared tradition was transmitted.

More recently, however, Jewish directors and screenwriters have become more open about their Judaism and are increasingly religiously-identified on film. Consequently, film began to depict Hanukkah as an important aspect of modern Jewish identity.  "An American Tail"(1986), an animated story about the Mouskewitz family who emigrate from Russia to America in 1885, opens with a scene of the mouse family celebrating Hanukkah. In 2002, the first US Hanukkah film to compare to the classical Hollywood Christmas films,"Eight Crazy Nights" starring Adam Sandler, was released. Yet, it was still noticeable that American Jews were reticent about outing Hanukkah fully on screen, preferring it to remain animated rather than live action.

This has since changed in the twenty-first century and Hanukkah has moved from relative obscurity to the mainstream in film, mirroring and prompted by its frequent appearance in television sitcoms. A hanukkiah(the nine-branched candelabrum lit during the festival) on the mantelpiece, as a piece of ornamentation, is typically used as a means of visual shortcutting and quickly signifying Jewish identity in many, many films. In "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle"(2004), for example, we see a hanukkiah on a coffee table in two Jewish characters’ apartment.

The festival also began to appear in its own right. In a long sequence in the romantic comedy "The Holiday"(2006), there is a festive meal around a very prominent hanukkiah. The Jewish-in-real-life Jack Black brings a bottle of Manischewitz to the party. And in "X-Men: First Class"(2011), we briefly glimpse the recollection of a childhood memory of the Hanukkah candle-lighting by the Jewish superhero and Holocaust survivor protagonist, Erik Lensherr aka Magneto.

At the same time, film has become increasingly irreverent in its use of Hanukkah. The plot of "The Hebrew Hammer"(2003) is focussed around Hanukkah  in which our hero must prevent an anti-Semitic psycho-Santa from destroying Hanukkah and its protagonist is named after the ancient hero of the Biblical story: Judah HaMaccabbee (Judah the Hammer).The hanukkiah in "Harold and Kumar"has a broken branch. A Jewish housewife played by Bette Midler in the 2004 remake of "The Stepford Wives"uses Hanukkah as a means to assert her ethnic and religious Otherness in a town of identikit WASP blondes during the holiday season. Finally, in "Wedding Daze"(2006) an Orthodox Jew invents toys targeted at Jewish children. He has produced a "Jewnicorn" -- a unicorn bedecked in Stars of David, which, when squeezed, recites the Hebrew blessing for lighting the Hanukkah candles.

Overall, then, over the course of the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st, Hanukkah has moved from obscurity to serving as a  means to obscure specific Jewish difference, part of an assimilatory drive to highlight Jews as participants in U.S. civil religion. It has since become more central in the new millennium in defining Jewish religious identity on film in a post-assimilatory era where Jews in film are becoming much more proud and assertive of their difference/s. Hanukkah therefore has become yet another sign of the increasing confidence of a younger generation of American Jews who are unafraid to assert their religious and ethnic identities.

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