This Claymation Frog Taught Me All About Hanukkah

Who Stole Hanukkah!? is a Jewish computer game I enjoyed as an 8-year-old and still enjoy as a 34-year-old.

If placing one’s lit Hanukkiah in the window is a public display of Jewish pride, surely the ambient flicker of my computer screen while playing a Hanukkah-themed computer game by a window could signify that same mitzvah? I’m asking for my 8-year-old and 34-year-old selves, both of whom are equally enthralled with JeMM Productions Who Stole Hanukkah!?, an interactive first person mystery game that’s equal parts claymation, education and my surprisingly untold Hanukkah tradition.

From 5758 to 5780, my sister and I have found ourselves alone in our fanaticism for a CD-ROM game that my Jewish and non-Jewish friends have not only never heard of, but fear upon introduction. While I loved, and still love, the anthropomorphic cast of quirky claymation characters, most comments below a YouTube walkthrough of the game detail scarred childhoods and play through feeling like a fever dream.

The story starts with Professor Croaks, a loveable Bernie-Sanders-coded Frog historian, whose most prized possession is the Maccabees’ miraculous oil jar. Before he can use it in his Hanukkah celebrations, it’s stolen with the expected dun dun duuuun musical sting of suspense. Enter Nerly, the smooth-talking, trench-coat wearing candle-detective who wants you to figure out ‘whodunit.’ Together with a black and white slideshow of eight suspects and lots of insider information, Nerly is the point person you’ll always report back to. Ultimately, it’s your goal to choose the ever-changing guilty party from one of those slides and save Hanukkah.

Outside and adjacent to Professor Croak’s study is your homepage of sorts, where you can select one of eight windows to begin your inquest. Within each window is a hallway of three shuffled doors: one leading to a suspect who holds a golden key and another to a tableau of one part of the Hanukkah story which contains a secret password. After playing Hanukkah games for the key and multiple choice trivia for the password, you can unlock the third door which leads you back to Nerly’s room. After reviewing new information about whomever you last visited, Nerly and her magnifying glass will escort you back to the scene of the crime where she’s sure she missed something. You’ll have the opportunity to scan Croak’s artifacts for new clues and review any old ones, before taking off to the next window.

The visits with the game’s suspicious characters are arguably the most entertaining part and of those eight characters, the Latke Troll holds my heart. With a Cookie-Monster-esque appetite for latkes, he has you click ingredient icons to learn a latke recipe to fry up and feed him. And although he’ll inevitably scream for more, and say he hates challah (how?), I can’t help but return to his door most often. I also have a soft spot for Schlemiel the Temple Repairman, a clumsy Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor type who can never find the tool he’s looking for. You can help him reassemble broken temple instruments to learn their names and purpose in Jewish tradition before hearing a beautiful instrumental performance of “Ma’oz Tzur.” His door isn’t the only one that inevitably gets a song stuck in my head; Ora Star and the Candle Sisters (Nora and Dora) teach soulful Hanukkah songs in Hebrew with phonetic English. They taught me “Hanerot Hallalu” and “Yemet Hahanukkah,” which I can’t help searching for covers of on Spotify while wishing there was a Who Stole Hanukkah?! playlist.

Falling into my lesser loved character interactions, you’ll play dreidel with an octopus named Crystal the Fortune Teller, use Hebrew words from the Hanukkah story to keep Bomba the Warrior elephant from falling from a clothesline in an anxiety-inducing hangman style game, light the candles with outspoken actress Mademoiselle Menorah and play a parody of the “Gong Show” with a Greek statue named Narcisso. Groucho Cat, an on-the-nose albeit feline homage to Groucho Marx, takes you to the temple to aid in its reclamation, but can also be found ducking in and out of many of the Hanukkah story scenes to provide comic relief.

Across the eight rooms that contain those scenes, you travel between the start of Alexander the Great’s Greek rule over Judea and all that transpired to get us to present day Hanukkah celebrations. Stories detailing how Mattathias led the revolt, the prevailing of the Maccabees against Greeks on elephant-back and the miracle of the oil burning eight days are told interactively with plenty of other Jewish ‘Easter eggs’ thrown in for good measure. You also see Rabbis of the Talmud discuss how Hanukkah should be celebrated and sit front row for two young Jewish magicians to conjure up a variety of menorahs used across the diaspora while eliciting “Hanu Hanu Hanukkah” as an abracadabra replacement. Each of the characters in these scenes, including an entirely too-hunky version of Judah Maccabee, shout answers to the trivia questions and invite us to click the correct one. Like any good teacher making one of the multiple choice questions obviously wrong, you’ll find comedy gold like mistaking the Greek Syrian King Antiochus for “Artichokus.” Like I said, gold.

Professor Croak is always on the sidelines of your investigation, inviting you to take a quick reprieve to his study to continue any lesson that piques your interest. His collection includes geographical maps that update with the time period, artifacts and more. Without question, this game taught me more than my Hebrew after-school classes and I only wish there was a Who Stole game for every Jewish holiday. Is that the reason I use this game to teach my non-Jewish husband all about Hanukkah? Yes. Has he had to endure the aforementioned YouTube walkthrough more than once? Also yes.

Nailing the suspect is arguably easier than keeping track of when Hanukkah lands on the Gregorian calendar and the game ends in celebration when the jar is returned. Like the holiday itself, Who Stole Hanukkah!? highlights themes of Jewish identity, persecution and meaningful rituals and customs. I’d most definitely nominate this game to be in the running for “Most Jewish Game Ever,” and have already considered how best to plead with the now defunct production company to bring it back as an app. That would truly be a Hanukkah miracle!

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