Just in Time for Passover, ‘High Maintenance’ Gives Us the Perfect Hanukkah Special

It's a love letter to everything we took for granted while we had it.

I don’t often find myself getting nostalgic for “the holidays.” As a Jewish person, the “holiday season” isn’t a merry, cheery time of goodwill and peppermint, but rather a super cold month when we eat a bunch of fried potatoes for eight days and maybe get a few new pairs of comfy socks (if we’re lucky). Don’t get me wrong, I love Hanukkah, but it’s not something I tend to think about much after it passes.

But this year, this year, is different. I’m nostalgic for everything that came before the pandemic, before we were all told to shelter in place, before a trip to the grocery store felt like a covert operation with your life on the line. Remember when we were bombarded with Christmas music for three months every time you went to the mall? Ah, yes, the mall. Remember waiting in long lines at the post office to mail off your goodies to loved ones? Oh man, I’d kill for a good line right now. Suddenly, the idea of frantically pacing through LaGuardia to catch the last flight out before a snowstorm sounds… fun? A nice change of pace?

This is all to say: I was incredibly grateful to watch the season finale of High Maintenance, which aired this past Friday night, April 3, and focused not on the Jewish holiday we’ll be celebrating later this week, but the one that slipped in just before things took a turn for the worse: Hanukkah.

Yes, the season finale of High Maintenance was a Hanukkah episode, and I had no idea how badly I needed it until I watched.

For those who still somehow aren’t familiar with this perfect show, High Maintenance tracks the stories of various New Yorkers who are all connected by one integral character: their weed guy. While there are some recurring characters that we’ve seen since the show started as a web series in 2012, most episodes are bottle episodes, meaning we get new characters and new storylines each time. There has been some excellent Jewish content to be found throughout, including an incredible web series episode called “Elijah” that is about, you guessed it, Passover, and an episode in season 2 called “Derech” that captures the lives of ex-Hasidic Jews in New York surprisingly well.

The season 4 finale, named “Soup,” takes place on Christmas Eve, when an impending Nor’easter (with a bomb cyclone!) cancels all flights out of New York. Half of the episode focuses on a group of flight attendants (and two passengers) who wind up staying at a “crash pad” in Queens to wait out the storm. And the other half follows our protagonist, The Guy (Ben Sinclair), who is supposed to be flying to Phoenix with his niece Ilana (Rachel Kaly), a student at Barnard, to spend the holidays with his brother/her dad. When it’s clear they won’t be making it to Arizona that day, they go back to The Guy’s apartment in Brooklyn to spend the night and “do a little Hanukkah thing. We’ll make latkes, we’ll make matzah ball soup…”

And thus begins our lovely Hanukkah tale.

The Guy shows a very reluctant and judgmental-of-his-lifestyle-choices Ilana around his new apartment (we later learn she comes from the “narc” side of the family; The Guy’s brother once ratted someone out for smoking a joint at a Tom Petty concert, during the song about rolling another joint). He mentions he recently joined a community garden and has been pickling a bunch of vegetables, and offers his niece a taste.

“I don’t really do pickles,” she says.

“Do you do Judaism? Cause that’s part of it,” he rightly quips back. At this point, I knew I’d be getting the Jewy High Maintenance episode of my dreams.

When we cut back to The Guy and Ilana, they’re eating at a Chinese restaurant (because Jews! On Christmas!). Ilana takes her daily medications to deal with her undisclosed mental health issues, opening up another theme of the episode: mental illness, how it runs through the family, and how the people who are “stuck with it” can feel doomed or broken. But first, we get an important conversation about soup. The Guy thinks the soup they’re currently eating is amazing; his niece is less impressed, saying, “I mean it’s fine. I like it. It’s just not the best I ever had.” When prompted to list her top three favorite soups, she says chicken noodle (yes), matzah ball (“That’s basically chicken noodle,” The Guy says, which yes, but also, no?) and egg drop. I appreciate this moment for many reasons: any discussion of soup feels inherently Jewish, as does eating one dish while talking about all the other dishes you are not currently eating.

Anyway, then the restaurant loses power, Ilana freaks out, and to help comfort her, The Guy starts to sing, “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years…” Yes, he is singing “Light One Candle,” a Hanukkah song written by Peter, Paul and Mary. The lyrics are all about the Maccabee children and talk of keeping the flame alive, letting it “shine through our love and our tears.” It doesn’t quite help Ilana calm down, but it made me feel pretty warm and fuzzy as a viewer.

The next time we cut to The Guy and Ilana, we are in full Hanukkah mode. The power’s still out in his apartment, but candles are lit all over, and we hear them singing the traditional blessing over the Hanukkah candles as they light what looks like a makeshift wooden menorah. The Guy is wearing a tea towel on top of his head in lieu of a yarmulke. Their voices are shaky, a little unsure. It all sort of made me want to weep — the familiar sounds of the botched-up Hebrew, the moody lighting, the DIY-ness of the rituals that somehow always feels more meaningful to me than when things are done just exactly right. The Guy follows up their final “amen” with, “Let’s eat donuts,” an exclamation that might as well be a part of the prayer.

Then we get perhaps the most authentic conversation about young Jewish American life I’ve ever heard on a mainstream TV show. The Guy mentions that Ilana used to be in NFTY (the Reform Jewish youth movement) and asks her if it was still “just a Jewish hook-up venue.” She says no, but “Birthright definitely was just that.” The Guy tells her he never went on Birthright, citing “the plane ride, the politics” as potential reasons for why. He asks her if she is still in touch with any friends from NFTY. “I didn’t make any friends at NFTY. I just went because my mom and dad said I had to.” I’m guessing some non-Jewish viewers had no clue what they were talking about for a good chunk of this scene, but it made me quite happy to see my people on the small screen.

That conversations bleeds into one about the mental illness that runs in their family. The Guy assures Ilana that she’s not “messed up.”

“I have accepted that I am,” she says. “It’s just something that runs in our family.”

The Guy relates, but fights back: “But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with us. We’re not broken. And we don’t need to be fixed. We’re all just trying to maintain, and we each got our own way of doing it.” He takes a beat, and then adds, “This is the most Hanukkah Hanukkah I’ve ever had. Look at all these fucking candles.”

“Way too much Hanukkah.”

“You ever listen to Adam Sandler?”

And scene.

Donuts, candles, mental illness, not fitting in with your family: This really is the perfect Hanukkah episode, no? What I love so much about High Maintenance in general is that it brings us into the world of so many different people — the many wonderful lives that make up the city of New York. We see how they are interconnected, how people affect others even if they never meet face-to-face. We don’t often go so deeply into The Guy’s life, but I’m so grateful that we did in this episode.

In many ways, this episode felt more like a series finale than a season finale — and I’m bracing myself for that possibility. “We’re all just trying to maintain…” definitely felt like a nice little summation of everything we’ve seen before, and in the very last scene of the episode, as Ilana leaves to catch a plane home to Phoenix and The Guy decides to take a spontaneous trip to New Zealand instead, we finally hear The Guy’s real name for the first time (I won’t spoil it for you here, but it feels really right). It’s also difficult to imagine what the show would be like in our current world, when bouncing around from house to house is not exactly the best move right now, and people are forced to isolate themselves, rather than make the connections that this show has so beautifully highlighted for years.

And maybe that’s why this episode hit me so hard. It’s like a love letter to a different time, a time we all knew only a couple months ago but that now feels impossibly far away, a different era. The quick b-roll footage of kids playing in the snow. Strangers from all different countries sharing a house together. People walking through the airport without masks. It’s everything we took for granted while we had it, and everything we wish could resume as soon as possible. In a prescient moment while discussing the HBO series Chernobyl (a fun little shout-out to the network the show airs on), The Guy says, “We won’t survive, but the earth will.” And he could be right.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope we’ll keep getting new seasons of High Maintenance because I would keep watching this show until the end of time, but if this really is the end, I’m so glad it went like this. With candlelight. With family. With a little miracle in the dark.

Header image by David Russell/HBO.

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