It’s kinda sad that there are so few Hanukkah specials out there. There are, of course, some great ones to choose from like the The Rugrats Hanukkah episodes, the Even Stevens Hanukkah special, or even An American Tale. And yes, if you wanted to, you could include the Adam Sandler animated movie Eight Crazy Nights. But there just aren’t that many specials dedicated to Hanukkah as there are for Christmas.
That’s why this year the Hallmark Channel decided to try and tackle the lack of Hanukkah movies, and apparently they failed spectacularly at it.
Hallmark was recently called out for having a disturbing lack of diversity in their movies and, in response to the criticism, attempted to correct this problem. Unfortunately, both the Washington Post and Jewish writer Gillian Friedman of Desert News claim that two of Hallmark’s recent Hanukkah themed movies are actually really anti-Semitic.
It’s too bad that Hallmark could not give Hanukkah the proper respect it deserves. Perhaps they will have better luck tackling Kwanzaa and Festivus. Maybe some day there will be enough cheesy, yet respectful Hanukkah movies to fill eight nights.
From the Washington Post:
In “Holiday Date,” a woman hires a Jewish actor to pose as her boyfriend and join her at her family’s house for Christmas. But, as described by Hallmark’s executive vice president of programming, the family grows “suspicious” about “whether he knows how to celebrate.” The trope of the sneaky, untrustworthy Jew, who is a perpetual outsider, is an enduring and pernicious stereotype. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of anti-Semitism’s conspiratorial mode. Such portrayals of Jewish people as devious, dangerous interlopers manifested in Nazi propaganda and 9/11 conspiracies; President Trump trots out the trope when he calls Rep. Adam B. Schiff “shifty.” (The California Democrat is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which has been leading the impeachment inquiry.) Now, it’s shown up in the form of a Jewish character attempting to blend in among the wary members of a Christian family.
“Double Holiday” isn’t much better: It follows a Jewish woman named Rebecca (of course) as she plans a company Christmas party with her office rival to get a promotion. […snip…] In the movie, Hanukkah stands only in relation to Christmas, not on its own terms. Indeed, it functions as an obstacle to the rest of the characters getting to celebrate as usual.
Along with the upcoming Lifetime movie “Mistletoe & Menorahs” (in which a Christian toy company executive and her Jewish acquaintance teach each other about their respective holidays), these stories’ underlying theme seems to be: See, Jews and Christians aren’t that different after all! This takeaway is alarmingly basic, but the plot mechanics are even more insidious. The drama hinges on Jewish characters being compelled to observe Christmas, and the tension resolves only when these outsiders learn how to participate in or appreciate the dominant religious tradition.
Bill Abbott, the chief executive of Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel, tried to defend these decisions. “It’s hard if we start to . . . make movies based off of specific holidays . . . because we don’t look at Christmas from a religious point of view, it’s more a seasonal celebration,” he said on the Hollywood Reporter’s “TV’s Top 5” podcast, explaining that the network wanted to attract “the broadest audience” possible. But Christmas specifically commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ each Dec. 25. It is not some secular, universal celebration of long winter nights. That a Hollywood executive could claim that Christmas is “neutral,” and holds a universal meaning for all viewers, proves just how all-encompassing and inescapable Christian traditions have become.
Hallmark is far from avoiding controversy with these choices, as Abbott claimed in his interview. And it’s difficult to take these movies seriously as representations of interfaith families, when they consistently depict Jewish characters adopting Christian rituals, and so rarely honoring their own, in their own right. At their worst, these movies traffic in bigoted stereotypes at a time when anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise and elected officials are reading from “Mein Kampf” on the floor of Congress, as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) did in March. At best, they remind Jews, and all non-Christians, that we can join in the holiday spirit only if we capitulate to the mainstream.
From Gillian Friedman at Deseret News:
[W]hen I heard last week that Hallmark was making two Hanukkah movies this year to include in its annual Christmas movie lineup, I was intrigued: How would Hallmark portray Hanukkah and its celebration of Jewish freedom? Would Hallmark produce a musical reenactment of the ancient, mystical story of Hanukkah, with the magical oil that lasted eight nights, like a Hanukkah “Prince of Egypt”?
I was deeply disappointed when I found out that both films have essentially the same story line — a Jew abandons Hanukkah and embraces Christmas. They aren’t really Hanukkah films at all: They are Christmas movies, the Jewish characters merely ornaments.
A “Hanukkah movie” about Jews embracing Christmas is deeply ironic. After all, Hanukkah commemorates a 2000-year-old battle in which Jews took up arms against the Greeks, who were forcing the Jews to abandon their faith and assimilate into Greek culture.
But Hallmark has been criticized for lack of diversity in their films, which primarily feature white, heterosexual couples who celebrate Christmas. The network was hoping to address such criticism in part through the addition of this year’s Hanukkah films, said Michelle Vicary, Crown Media’s executive vice president of programming, to the New York Post. (Crown Media is the Hallmark Channel’s parent company and at press time, they did not respond to interview requests from the Deseret News.)
[W]hile they may be billed as “Hanukkah movies,” both films actually revolve around Christmas, said Ashton. Hanukkah does not stand alone in the films as its own holiday, it only appears to exist in reference to Christmas, with Christmas ultimately seeming more appealing than Hanukkah, she said.
“It’s defining Hanukkah in terms of Christmas,” said Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. “It’s offensive.”
The storyline of “Holiday Date” may also perpetuate anti-Semitic tropes, said Person. The “fake” boyfriend who pretends to be Christian echoes an age-old anti-Semitic stereotype of the duplicitous, deceitful Jew.
As Vicary described to the Post: “Unfortunately they have not discussed if he knows all the traditions. As the family becomes more suspicious whether he knows how to celebrate, our two leads begin to fall for each other.”
The Jewish man is presented as an untrustworthy stranger, the target of the family’s suspicion.
The films may not be intended for Jewish viewers at all, said Ashton.
“These films are for a Christian audience,” said Ashton. “The majority of what’s going on in these movies is intended to make Christians feel comfortable.”
The word Hanukkah means “dedication.” It refers to the “rededication” of the temple after reclaiming it from the Greeks — and the deep dedication of the Jewish people to their faith.
Jewish people have a joke that most of our holidays go something like this: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” But the Hanukkah story is more nuanced. The Greeks didn’t want to kill the Jews for being Jews, they wanted Jews to abandon their Jewish beliefs and assimilate into Greek culture.
“Hanukkah is unique from every other Jewish holiday on the calendar in that we are not celebrating victory over physical persecution, we are celebrating the victory over spiritual persecution,” said Rabbi Zippel. “The Greeks had no problem with the Jews as a people, the Greeks had a problem with Judaism.”
But Hallmark’s Hanukkah movies embrace the very phenomenon that Hanukkah fights against: Jews forgoing their own faith in favor of Christmas, the “hallmark” holiday of the majority culture (pun intended).
“They learn that while the traditions and celebrations are different, the feelings of holiday and celebration and family and togetherness are the same,” said Crown Media’s Vicary of the storyline of “Double Holiday” to the New York Post.
But that’s just it: Hanukkah is not about Jews being the same as Christians. Hanukkah is about Jews fighting for the freedom to be different from Christians.
“Hanukkah is about Jewish distinctiveness and it’s about standing up for what you believe,” said Rabbi Person. “It’s about not being afraid to be a minority.”
I always thought the Hallmark Channel was created to cater to those for whom Lifetime “meet cute” movies were too profound and thought-provoking, but now I see that they are really just another propaganda outlet that telegraphs the message that white, straight Christians are the only people worth examining and celebrating, and we should all thank them for allowing the rest of us to exist among them.