We Jewish kids don’t have a lot of options when it comes to Hanukkah entertainment. Sure, there are always the trusty Rugrats to provide a little Jewish representation on TV. And Adam Sandler gave Jewish kids something besides the “Dreidel Song” to sing around the menorah. But even still, the Hanukkah pop culture pickings are slim. So when Disney+ dropped in mid-November, I headed straight for one of the few Hanukkah TV specials I remembered cherishing as a kid: the Even Stevens Hanukkah episode.
But reader, I must admit: It fell short. While I was expecting a gimel of a TV episode, I was left with more of a nun.
For those who don’t remember or those who missed out on the Disney Channel classic, the Even Stevens Hanukkah episode “Heck of a Hanukkah” aired in 2000 and was the 15th episode of the show’s first season. The episode begins with Louis (a baby-faced Shia LeBeouf) up to his usual shenanigans, only this time they’re holiday-themed. Louis is looking for the family’s Hanukkah presents ahead of the holiday’s first night. But, in the process, he accidentally throws all the presents out of a second-story window. Louis’ family gets angry enough to prompt him to wish he’d never been born. That’s how we end up with a Disney-fied version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic Christmas movie from 1946 that you might recognize simply from its ubiquity each and every holiday season. In it, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey finds himself despondent on Christmas Eve and wishes he had never been born. Thus begins a journey with an angel named Clarence who shows him what the world would be like without him. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s also very explicitly a Christmas movie, so I was surprised to see that it’s the movie Even Stevens chose to parody for its Hanukkah special.
Now, I know that there aren’t many (if any) iconic Hanukkah movies that the Even Stevens writers could have used as models instead. But by referencing a Christmas movie in a Hanukkah special, doesn’t that place Hanukkah in the shadow of Christmas even more? To me, that says that we should only strive to make Hanukkah as similar to the bigger, flashier holiday as possible instead of celebrating all that makes it unique.
And there are so many things that make Hanukkah unique. Sure, the episode includes Louis’ bubbe taking the place of Clarence the angel and a brief retelling of the Hanukkah story by Louis’ mom. But besides that, there is very little in the episode that speaks to the unique cultural experience of Hanukkah. Where are the latkes or jelly donuts? Or the Stevens siblings fighting over a heated game of dreidel? A major way that Hanukkah is different from Christmas is the fact that it’s celebrated over the course of eight nights. I’d love to see a Hanukkah episode that takes place over the course of a week as the family engages in the full celebration. Instead, the main conflict among the family is Louis ruining all the gifts, which doesn’t seem that different from a Christmas-y plot point (after all, giving gifts for Hanukkah only became an American thing once Christmas became a national holiday in the late 19th century).
Thinking about Hanukkah traditions calls to question one more issue for me: Is the perfect Hanukkah special the thing we should really be striving for anyway? While Christmas is a huge holiday, Hanukkah is a relatively small deal in Judaism. We only look for Hanukkah specials because of the holiday’s proximity to Christmas and all its many media representations. Perhaps we should instead be aiming for the perfect Sukkot TV special, or a movie that captures the magic of Rosh Hashanah (yeah, I’m not holding my breath either). Personally, my favorite holiday (among both Jewish and secular ones) is Passover, and some day I’d love to see the perfect mainstream Passover family movie centered around a seder.
I don’t want to disparage Even Stevens too much. After all, in a media landscape filled with twinkling tinsel, the show gave us ‘90s kids the rare glow of a hanukkiah. When the December TV schedule is filled almost entirely with kids celebrating Christmas, it does feel special to see people like you excited about celebrating Hanukkah. I just wish that in depicting that celebration, the creators would also celebrate a bit more of what makes Hanukkah and Jewish culture special.