“The Nanny” is one of the most Jewish things to have ever graced television. An American sitcom that originally ran from 1993 to 1999, the show featured one of the most hilarious leads in comedy history, Fran Drescher’s Fran Fine — a working-class Jewish girl from Flushing, Queens with an iconic laugh and a lot of heart.
In the ‘90s, “The Nanny” broke boundaries for its incorporation of Jewish pride and culture. The show was chock-full of Fran’s Jewish pride, from her constant Yiddishisms to eating traditional Ashkenazi dishes.
But that wasn’t necessarily always the plan. Drescher had to fight to keep her character’s Jewishness, saying the network originally wanted Fran Fine to be Italian, not Jewish. However, Drescher refused to assimilate, ensuring Fran Fine would be Jewish and standing by her belief in the power of her identity and creative vision. In “The Nanny,” Fran Fine was openly and unapologetically Jewish — and that representation matters.
Nowhere is this commitment to Jewishness clearer than in “The Hanukkah Story,” one of the most touching episodes in the show that has stuck with me long since watching.
Before this episode aired, we saw Fran celebrate Christmas with the Sheffields, the wealth, Waspy family that she’s a live-in nanny for, many times. In “The Christmas Show” (season 1, episode 8) Fran has a positive attitude towards the holiday, stating, “To be part of a real Christmas is a dream come true.” While some Jews tend to distance themselves from this holiday, others grew up with some form of “Christmas envy”; here, Fran appreciates it from a secular perspective. In “Oy to the World” (season 3, episode 14) she enjoys the non-denominational parts of Christmas, such as good-will and generosity, while still bringing her Jewish flair, stating, “You’re making me all verklempt!” when she sees her charge, Brighton, giving out toys to kids or joking about Jewish reindeer.
Of course, while celebrating Christmas with the Sheffield family, Fran never misses a moment to talk about Hannukah, with epic lines such as, “One year we begged my mother for a Christmas tree. She called it a Hanukkah bush. P.S. the candles from the menorah set the flocking on fire and the flumes put my father into the emergency room.”
But nothing compares to “The Hanukkah Story” (season 6, episode 10), marking the first time that Fran celebrates her first Hanukkah as a married woman with her new family. The episode begins with Fran making latkes and jokingly responds to the question of why Jewish holidays start at sunset by saying, “Well, that’s because God realized that before 5 o’clock, to wear sequins is gauche.” Unfortunately, her beloved husband Max acts like a putz and mistakenly makes business plans to drive to Boston with C.C. and Gracie on the first night of Hanukkah. Naturally, Fran is devasted because, as she says, she wants to “continue the traditions that [she] was raised with.”
Things take a turn for the worse when she learns that their car veered off the road during one of the worst snow storms of the season. As we see Fran struggle with this anxiety about what happened to her family, a nun stops by her house. After hearing about Fran’s worries for her family, the nun offers to pray together with Fran in a touching moment of interfaith solidarity. This is a sitcom, not a drama, so of course, Max, Gracie and C.C. eventually return home safe and sound. As it had turned out, the gas that had been in their car — which was only enough to last one hour — lasted for eight hours. A true Hanukkah miracle.
“The Hanukkah Story” was not just a beautiful demonstration of faith and love, but also a shining testament to Drescher’s activism for her character and her community.
Though there had been no lack of Jewish characters in American sitcoms (including “Friends” and “Seinfeld” to varying degrees), there hadn’t been quite a show in which Jewish performers could authentically perform their own Jewishness quite like Drescher did in “The Nanny.” Even Jewish actors like Estelle Gettleman — known professionally as Estelle Getty — wanted her “Golden Girls” character Sophia Petrillo to be Jewish, to match her own background, but instead the producers made Sophia Italian. In essence, what Drescher did in keeping Fran Fine Jewish was nothing short of a miracle.
Drescher’s commitment to keeping her Jewish is something that speaks to the holiday of Hanukkah. The holiday can be understood as a celebration against assimilation, of keeping one’s traditions and identity alive even despite opposition from surrounding forces. Though she lives in a mostly non-Jewish household throughout the show, Fran Fine proudly and boldly upholds her Jewish way of life, never toning down her accent, her style or her culture for anybody.
The mere fact that “The Nanny” had a Hanukkah special, and so many episodes centered on Fran’s Jewish culture, stands as a testament to the Hanukkah spirit and Jewish pride.
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail email@example.com with “Late Take” in the subject line.