As I kid I always liked it when Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas as it does this year. Today is the first day of the eight-day Festival of Lights so Christmas is nestled firmly inside of it. The confluence of the two holidays helps with the overall seasonal mood but also promotes the notion of Hanukkah as a kind of “Jewish Christmas” which always bothered me since the two holidays have nothing to do with each other. The double holiday week also seems to be doing little to help retailers during this miserable economic downturn—I just heard a report that said they’re expecting their worst Christmas season in over 40 years. Ah well, maybe that will make everyone more focused on the true meaning of the holidays. (Yeah, right.)
Not that most Jewish people understand the true meaning of Hanukkah. Sure, we've all heard about Judah Maccabee, Antiochus, the small amount of oil that burned for eight days, menorahs, latkes, and dreidels, but I bet if you did man-on-the-street interviews with Jews around the world you’d get about a hundred different versions of the story. By contrast, Christmas is gloriously High Concept. That holiday lends itself easily to an “elevator pitch,” the notion in the movie industry that film executives can only listen to an idea for a new project in the time it takes for a quick elevator ride. “Son of God…holy birth…Virgin Mary…no room at the inn…three wise men,” the screenplay practically writes itself!
Maybe that’s the trouble with Hanukkah—there’s never been a definitive movie treatment. I probably wouldn’t know squat about Passover if it weren’t for Charlton Heston’s imperial Moses in De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments.” The list of heartwarming Christmas movies is endless, both religious and secular. Last week I went to a screening of the gorgeously restored “Miracle on 34th Street” at the Motion Picture Academy. What a great film. Watching no-nonsense career woman and single mom Maureen O’Hara eventually crack her hard-scrabble exterior and accept the true meaning of the holiday gets me every time, and seven-year-old Natalie Wood deserved an Oscar for her moving portrayal of O’Hara’s cynical daughter. I thought I was immune to the emotions this film used to induce in me as a child but once again I found myself sobbing during the scene at Macy’s when (the real) Santa Claus starts talking perfect Dutch to the sad little immigrant girl which causes Natalie Wood to question her mother's insistence that Santa Claus is simply a marketing tool. And I love Maureen O’Hara’s exquisitely delivered line that follows: “Susan, I speak French but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc!”
But what is there in the American movie canon to commemorate Hanukkah? Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights?” That’s all I can think of, apart from some relatively recent TV specials like “A Rugrats Chanukah” and one featuring Shari Lewis’s sock puppet Lamb Chop. Oy. How pathetic. Would it have killed Charlton Heston to don Judah Maccabee’s robes and chew up the scenery while he rededicated the altar of the Holy Temple following its defilement by Antiochus and his minions? I’m truly surprised this film has never been made. Maybe they need to get a bunch of hunky young actors of today to play Judah and his four brothers Jochanan, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan. I can see the tagline: “Zac Efron IS Judah Maccabee!” (Hey, he’s already Jewish even if he does consider himself agnostic.)
I know, I know, Jews complaining about how Hanukkah compares to Christmas in terms of media treatment has become something of a cliché, I’m sure I’ve been moaning about it for the past four years on this blog. Instead of kvetching further, I’ll tell you about the new CD and video that I’ve been listening to this year that helps to turn that around: it’s a rip-roaring tribute called “Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert.” This rousing concert includes Hipster Heebs such as the Klezmatics, Dave Koz, Michelle Citrin, Alberto Mizrahi, and, my personal favorite, Mare Winningham. Do you remember actress Winningham from her days as a member of the Brat Pack in films like “St. Elmo’s Fire” and her series of TV movies in which she was always cast as homeless women, prostitutes, or other tragic figures? I’ve always thought she was a brilliant actress, even in high-camp classics such as “Miracle Mile” in which she escapes a nuclear attack on Los Angeles by jumping into a helicopter on top of a Wilshire Boulevard skyscraper with Anthony Edwards. Her 1995 star turn in “Georgia” with Jennifer Jason Leigh was the first time I realized what a kick-ass singing voice she has, and I’ve heard her sing at various live events over the years. Winningham has always fascinated me because of her conversion from Roman Catholicism to Judaism—not because she was married to a Jew or anything (her husband and five children are not Jewish), but simply because she was drawn to the religion on her own. Like many converts, Winningham is a better Jew than most born ones, and she sings two wonderful songs in this concert: the Hebrew “Hanerot Halalu” and a fun ditty she wrote herself called “The Convert Jig.” Here’s a clip (not from this particular concert) of Winningham singing that original song:
Now that’s one good Jew! I’d like to cast her as Judith in my modern film version of the Hanukkah story. Are you familiar with Judith? She’s an early feminist icon of Judaism who is revered by many (my mother was named for her) but forgotten by most. In the second century, B.C. E., following the invasion of the Assyrian Army of a town called Bethulia, the city’s elders agree to surrender the famine-stricken town if they are not rescued within a few days. Judith, a feisty widow, challenges the wussy men to take more responsibility for their future. She enters the Assyrian camp on her own and eventually wins the trust of their leader, Holofernes, who invites her to a banquet. When he falls asleep in a drunken stupor, Judith wastes no time. She takes the Assyrian’s sword and decapitates him in one fell swoop. This throws the army into total chaos at which point the Israelites mount a surprise victorious attack. I think I’ll hire fellow Brat Packer Rob Lowe to play Holofernes in a bit of stunt casting that will appeal to Baby Boomers. Winningham will be brilliant as Judith and will receive her second Oscar nomination.
Happy Hanukkah to you all—see you at the movies!