The rare Jewish holiday special was a bastion of representation that still resonates today.
The Christmas industrial complex quickly consumes the whole of pop culture. One can barely slip the surly bonds of October 31st before being inundated with a whirlwind of tinsel-tinged music, decorations, and of course, T.V. specials. There’s nothing wrong with that! While the totality of it can be overwhelming at times, even for enthusiasts, there’s something downright pleasant about a big communal celebration touching the whole of society in some way, including our favorite television shows.
But there are vanishingly few Chanukah specials out there. So if like me, you were a young Jewish child growing up in the bible belt, it’s all too easy to feel left out when the calendar turns to December, and the whole world, even your favorite cartoon characters, seems to shift toward something you’re not a part of.
Enter the Rugrats, one of the few mainstream shows this side of Lamp Chop to offer a dose of Jewish representation to kids far and wide. Despite that, 1996’s A Rugrats Chanukah is, on the surface, a fairly typical episode for the series.
Young Tommy’s Jewish grandfather, Boris (Michael Bell), is preparing to star in a holiday production called “The Meaning of Chanukah.” But amid the celebration, Boris gripes nonstop about his spotlight-stealing co-star and rival, Schlomo (voiced by legendary Yiddish actor Fyvush Finkel), whom the babies misinterpret as “The Meanie of Chanukah,” in a characteristic mix-up. From there, the moppets set out on a mission to treat Boris’ erstwhile bully the same way their daycare teacher does — by forcing him to take a nap.
The setup of the Chanukah pageant at the local synagogue and the babies’ efforts to save Tommy’s grandpa from an allegedly vile villain paves the way for plenty of fun holiday hijinks. The absurdity of Tommy’s dad, Stu, turning the play’s giant menorah into an overdone, steam-punk delight/monstrosity is a blast (literally). A parishioner in a giant dreidel costume trips over Angelica, prompting Boris to declare “I win” and nab his box of donuts after the poor schmuck lands on gimel, which makes for a great Chanukah gag. And the same unlucky sod complaining that Angelica “broke [his] shin” is the icing on the sufganiyot.
At the same time, there’s something well-observed about the chaos of the pre-pageant fair, the ramshackle retelling of the Maccabees’ tale, and not for nothing, the chaos of little kids sneaking out of daycare and causing a ruckus during the service. (In that spirit, Angelica’s efforts to watch her doll’s Christmas special makes for a nicely chaotic subplot.) These choices are small in the grand scheme of things. But the simple fact of seeing your own holiday experiences reflected on the small screen is huge. It serves as a signifier that other people in the mainstream culture have been through the same things you have, something revelatory for a young viewer.
So is the chance to apply the babies’ usual roleplaying and misunderstandings to the Jewish community’s own winter celebration. A Rugrats Chanukah explains the story behind the Festival of Lights in an age-appropriate way. The babies cosplaying as Jews in King Antiochus’s days is a lot of fun. Tommy (Elizabeth Daily) steps into the persona of Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Chaunkah legend, with trademark enthusiasm (how has “A Macca-baby’s gotta do what a Macca-baby’s gotta do!” not become a fixture of the popular lexicon?). And the simplification of the story into a tale about how the Jews and their Greek neighbors lived in peace, until a harsh new king forced the Jews to abandon their ways so that everyone would look and worship as he did, makes the tale understandable and accessible to a younger audience.
Well, more or less. Part of the fun of Rugrats is how the titular tykes get the gist of the topic du jour, but bend and twist it in amusing little kid ways. The babies’ idle speculation that the candles of the menorah and string of daily presents mean it’s Tommy’s birthday every day is adorable. The pint-sized crew, including Angelica, being thrown for a loop that the family is making pancakes at night, rather than the morning, and with potatoes no less, is suitably innocent and cute. Even the proper pronunciation of the holiday is a source of fun, since Angelica’s “You gotta ch- when you say it” is the line delivery of the episode.
All of this breeds a certain sense of normalcy to A Rugrats Chanukah, the idea that this is simply what the babies, and by extension the show, do for everything, including the Festival of Lights. The fact that a Hebrew holiday just so happens to be the subject of fun this week is both glorious in how unique it is, and heartening in how typically it’s treated by the series and its characters. For Rugrats, Chanukah isn’t some unusual aberration; it’s just what more fodder for the show’s pint-sized slice of life perspective, and that’s quietly groundbreaking.
[T]he simple fact of seeing your own holiday experiences reflected on the small screen is huge.
Still, A Rugrats Chanukah comes with some emotional heft, as befits a holiday special. Grandpa Boris’ rivalry centers on an aggrieved sense of mean ol’ Schlomo constantly one-upping him that stretches back to their time in the old country. As the pair portray Judah Maccabee and King Antiochus in the play, their longstanding enmity only escalates. But the peak of the insult for Boris is the fact that, while he undoubtedly cherishes his sweet but modest family, Schlomo purportedly goes on and on about his big successful business, something which sticks in the craw of Boris as pointed grandstanding.
Except, Boris comes to find out (after an on-stage scuffle that the synagogue’s singers carefully cover) that Schlomo’s crowing about his business was actually a form of overcompensation. In Schlomo’s eyes, Boris was the one always going on and on about his beautiful family. Those boasts about a bustling home wounded Schlomo, because he and his wife were never able to have children. So Schlomo felt especially stung by the fact that he has no one to pass on their people’s traditions to.
The insight and narrative flip of that revelation are brilliant. Realizing the “grass is always greener” brand of mutual envy between these two alte kakers helps Boris appreciate how much he has and see that both of them had this rivalry all wrong from the start. He comes to understand Schlomo’s plight, one that speaks to the importance of carrying on that light within the Jewish community, and the joys of sharing it with the next generation. And most of all, the special grants Schlomo his greatest wish. Boris encourages his erstwhile foe to finish the Chanukah story in order to soothe the frazzled little babies, and explain to them why this celebration means so much to their community, and to him.
So he does. On a day of miracles, Schlomo receives his — the chance to share his people’s rituals and their meaning with those just beginning to understand both. And the kiddos succeed in their mission too, since between bedtime stories and tender cuddles with miniature Macca-babies (not to mention a fair bit exertion for some older gents), the whole crew slips into the nap that Tommy and company strove to achieve in the first place, much to the oohing and aahing of an adoring crowd.
Before he falls asleep though, Schlomo (and by extension writers J. David Stem and David N. Weiss) offers a timeless, inspiring distillation of the Chanukah message: “A menorah is like the nightlight of our people. In times of darkness it shines on the whole world, reminding us not to be afraid to be different.” It is, in keeping with the show’s sharp ability to break down big concepts in ways a young audience can understand, an analogy to something little kids will recognize, with a lesson that addresses a feeling they probably (and for young Jewish children, certainly) already know.
It’s hard to be different, for any reason, especially as a kid. It’s easy to want to hide your differences from the world and thereby reduce the friction of moving within it. Telling children that they don’t have to do that, that there’s courage in choosing to be who and what you are, and that there’s a proud tradition stretching back thousands of years to supporting them for it, is a wonderful, heartening message for one and all. After a year full of loud bursts of antisemitism from entertainers, athletes, and politicians, that message resonates now more than ever.
Despite its achievements, the special received some criticism from Jewish corners when it aired. The Anti-Defamation League took the show’s usual scraggly art style to reflect pernicious caricatures of Jews that date back centuries. But for me, a scores of other Jewish kids growing up in a torrent of candy-canes and mistletoe, A Rugrats Chanukah was that night light in the darkness, a beacon of Jewish recognition and joy amid a wash of yuletide programming that had its charms but inevitably left us out.
In the throes of the holiday season, Rugrats gave those kids something vital to hold onto, and told them something important: You are seen. You are valid. You too deserve to step into that light.