Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

In the last decade or two, cable television's holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alas, then there's "Bad Santa," "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Jingle All the Way" and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like "The Nativity Story."

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this "holiday" entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," which critic Michael Arbeiter once called "a travesty." Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as "The Producers," "Barton Fink," "Annie Hall," "An American Tail" or even -- "bite the bullet," he said -- "Scrooged," "Muppet Christmas Carol" or another take on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a "Jewish Christmas." Is it really necessary to create copycat "carols" like "On the First Day of Hanukkah," "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah" and "Maccabees are Coming to Town"?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some "militaristic" themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Fla., author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Hanukkah isn't a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles – one on the first night, increasing to eight – is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?

Facing the Hanukkah-Holidays puzzle, one American family at a time

Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.

 This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?

 "I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"

 Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.

Let Hanukkah be Hanukkah

The candelabra should have eight candles in a straight line with a separate holder -- usually high and in the middle -- for the "servant" candle that is used to light the others.

The purpose of Hanukkah menorahs is to publicize the miracle at the heart of the "Festival of Lights," when tradition says a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated the temple from their Greek oppressors. Thus, most families place their menorahs in front windows facing a street.

So far, so good.

The lighting of the first candle should be at sundown on the first night of the eight-day season, which begins on Friday (Dec. 15) this year. Hanukkah candles should burn at least 30 minutes and it's forbidden to use their light for any purpose other than viewing or meditating.

Blessings are recited before the first candle is lit, starting with: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah." Each night, another candle is added -- with eight burning at the end of the season.

That's it. That's what Jews are supposed to do during Hanukkah. They're supposed to light the candles and give thanks to God.

It's all about lights shining in darkness.

"This is a simple holiday with a simple message and it isn't supposed to be all that complicated," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella group for Orthodox Jews in North America.

"You come home from work, you light the candles, you say the blessings and then you sit down with your kids and play games with dreidels. ... It's pretty small stuff compared with all of the emotions of Passover."

Some Jewish families will sing Hanukkah songs and fry some potato pancakes called "latkes," homemade donuts or other festive foods using hot oil -- a key symbol in the season. Many parents give their children small gifts each night, such as coins or chocolates wrapped in gold foil to resemble coins.

This is where, for many, the Hanukkah bandwagon starts to get out of control. As the Jewish Outreach Institute Hanukkah website bluntly states: "Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated American Jewish holiday, possibly because it is a fun, child-centered occasion."

Everyone knows why Hanukkah keeps getting bigger and bigger, said Weinreb, who also has worked as a psychologist specializing in family issues.

"How can a Jewish kid growing up in America or anywhere else in the Western world not get swept up, to one degree or another, in the whole business of Christmas? The music is everywhere and the decorations are everywhere. Many of your school friends are having parties and they're all excited about the gifts they're going to get," he said.

"From a Jewish perspective, all of this is a rabbi's worst nightmare. You want to find a way to say, 'That's not us.' But, in the end, many people lose control."

Before you know it, someone else's Christmas tree turns into a holiday tree and, finally, into something called a Hanukkah bush.

The end result is ironic, to say the least. Hanukkah is supposed to be a humble holiday about the need for Jews to resist compromising their beliefs in order to assimilate into a dominant culture. However, for many families it has become the biggest event on the Jewish calendar -- because it is so close to the all-powerful cultural earthquake that some people still call "Christmas."

Those old-fashioned notions about giving children a few modest Hanukkah gifts have evolved into expectations of a nightly procession of toys, clothing and electronic goodies. And, in many of America's 2.5 million households with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, the rites of the shopping mall have been blended to create the pop-culture reality called "Chrismukkah."

All of this is easy to understand and hard to resist.

"One gift a night for eight nights is just commercialism, pure and simple. That has more to do with Toys 'R' Us than it does with Judaism," said Weinreb. "Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas and we all know that. Hanukkah is what it is. We just need to do what we are supposed to do and let the holiday take care of itself."

Oy Joy! Merry Chrismukkah

At first it seemed normal to Michelle Gompertz to be sitting in an Indian restaurant listing to Kenny G recordings of pop Christmas carols.

Then she grew disoriented. This Indian restaurant was in New Deli. She was surrounded by Hindu culture, but nobody thought twice about listening to the same holiday saxophone Muzak that would be playing in American shopping malls.

"I knew that Christmas was everywhere. But it really hit me," said Gompertz, the daughter of a United Church of Christ pastor in Indiana. "I remember thinking, 'Where are we? What season is this, anyway?' "

She remembered that scene after she married a Jewish New Yorker and started planning holiday festivities in the San Francisco Bay area. It seemed like all of their close friends shared a common bond -- one spouse was Christian and the other Jewish.

What kind of decorations should they use? What songs were they supposed to sing and what songs were they supposed to avoid? When you live in one of America's 2.5 million Jewish-Christian households, what season is this?

"Everybody knows that what you're supposed to say is 'Happy Holidays' and leave it at that," said Ron Gompertz. "But when you're in an interfaith family it's more than that. It's kind of Hanukkah and it's kind of Christmas.

"When I was a kid we tried calling it 'Hanumas.' On 'Seinfeld' they came up with 'Festivas,' but that wasn't right either."

Then Ron and Michelle Gompertz watched the 2003 episode of the hip teen soap "The O.C." in which anti-hero Seth Cohen explained the holiday ground rules in his interfaith family. This was a season about having it all -- all the parties, all the gifts, all the music. And the name of this season was "Chrismukkah."

"All you had to do was say that two or three times -- Chrismukkah -- and it just sounded right," said Ron Gompertz, who now lives in Montana with his wife and daughter.

The Gompertz clan made some cards for family and friends and claimed the rights to the www.Chrismukkah.com domain. This year, they hired a designer and jumped into the marketplace with "Oy Joy" and "Merry Mazeltov" cards and gifts, with images ranging from an Orthodox Jewish Santa to a reindeer with antlers that hold menorah candles.

What precisely is "Chrismukkah"? Their press materials call it a secular, "hybrid holiday" that begins with the eight-day Hanukkah season and extends through Christmas. This year, the Jewish "Festival of Lights" begins at sundown on Dec. 7.

The Chrismukkah franchise is not alone. A company called MixedBlessing has marketed interfaith cards for 15 years and Hallmark Cards Inc. now has four holiday offerings blending Jewish and Christian themes. A typical American Greetings Corp. "Merry Hanukkah" card shows a Jewish Santa inspiring his sleigh team with the cry: "On Isaac! On Izzy! On Eli! On Abe! On Levi! On Morty! On Shlomo! On Gabe!"

The problem with the "Oy to the World" punch lines is that, for many Jewish and Christian leaders, interfaith marriage isn't funny. During the past generation or so, nearly half of American Jews have married outside the faith. About a third of the children of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews.

A new statement from the U.S. Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee bluntly urges these parents to raise their children in one faith or the other. Attempting to raise children "simultaneously as both 'Jewish' and 'Catholic' ... can only lead to violation of the integrity of both religious traditions, at best, and, at worst, to syncretism," it said.

The problem for mixed-marriage families such as his, said Rod Gompertz, is that "The Holidays" have already been sliced, diced and secularized in the public square. Embracing "Chrismukkah" merely goes one step further and "recognizes the state of mind that we are already living in," he said.

For millions of ordinary Americans, this is a season about Frosty the Snowman, shopping bags, Bing Crosby, twinkle lights and the whole mass-media experience. Thus, "Chrismukkah" isn't religious. It isn't the real Christmas or the real Hanukkah, he said.

"How are we supposed to balance what are actually fundamentally incompatible holidays? Our solution is to focus on the fun parts that we can enjoy without getting into all that theology."

Deja vu Nativity wars

Another Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice season has come and gone, but the lawyers will be cleaning up for quite a while.

Things got rough on the church-state front. Pick a zip code.

Firefighters in Glenview, Ill., were ordered to take down their station's lights, tree and Santa when neighbors said they were offended.

A pastor in Chandler, Ariz., was grieved when the public library set up a display of readings about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but not Christmas. Instead of adding Christian books, as the pastor requested, the library staff removed the whole display.

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened in Tallahassee, Fla., when the Jewish Chabad offered to help county commissioners buy a 22-foot menorah for the courthouse yard. Both sides threatened lawsuits, until a shopping center offered to play host.

The conflict is now global. Leaders of the Abbey National Bank in England ordered the Upminster branch to remove an offensive Nativity scene from private property. Down under, the Anglican archbishop of Sidney, Australia, protested new bans on Christmas decorations in businesses and schools.

There were waves of similar cases.

But this drama would not be complete without an election dispute in Palm Beach, Fla., where protestors are trying to unseat council members who nixed a creche on public land, next to a holiday tree and a city-owned menorah. This gets complicated. Officials offered to allow a creche in a city park next to a menorah used in rites by the Orthodox Lubavitch Center. So there could be a Nativity scene next to the "religious" menorah in the park's display area, but no Nativity scene next to the "secular" menorah on a street median.

This week, the council voted to avoid the religious symbolism wars altogether.

"It's a mess," said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is involved in several Christmas cases. "The key ... is that a Christmas tree simply does not equal a menorah, because the courts have said that a Christmas tree has become a secular symbol while a menorah is a religious symbol.

"To put a more neutral spin on it, it's really clear that an evergreen holiday tree with totally secular decorations on it is not a Christian symbol."

Not all creche controversies are created equal. The most problematic involve government-owned and operated decorations on public land. In other cases, authorities may allow diverse collections of private religious decorations on public sites that are zones for free speech. With private groups, on private property, anything goes.

The case law is actually decades old, noted Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University. Nevertheless, many public and private leaders remain confused.

In a recent Pennsylvania case, a school's multicultural committee set up a display with a creche, a menorah and a Kwanzaa scene, she noted, writing for FindLaw's Legal Commentary. Although this display was almost certainly constitutional, a principal panicked and ordered only the creche removed.

The message in the original, diverse display, she noted, was "not one of endorsement for a particular religious viewpoint," but that government was "acknowledging the celebrations of its various citizens. And that is perfectly constitutional."

Meanwhile, there is no legal entitlement for citizens to demand that government acknowledge their particular faith, she noted. Civic leaders should try to offer equal access or do nothing. But if diverse decorations are allowed, then there "no constitutional right not to be exposed to the holidays, either," she noted. Some may be offended.

At times, the whole debate becomes a tornado of lawyers arguing about how many generic angels, non-liturgical stars and strings of secular twinkle lights beleaguered politicos must drape around religious symbols to make them safe for public consumption.

Enough is more than enough, said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"Why not just put Nativity scenes on the front lawns of every single church in town?", he asked. "Why do people think they need to get the government get involved, which shoves things into a constitutional zone where you have to start counting the number of reindeer and Santas around your Nativity scene so that everybody knows you're trying to be neutral?

"Why don't our churches just get together and handle this?"

Happy Hanukkah, no matter what

When Sabina Dener was a child in the Bronx, she knew it was Hanukkah when everyone started singing Christmas carols.

"When I was in school, we had to learn Christmas carols and we had to stand up and sing them, too," she said, describing the World War II era. "That's just the way things were. Hanukkah was a minor holiday we celebrated at home. It was about treats and games and that was that.

"Now everything has changed. Just look at this."

It was a glorious evening to light the first candle of the eight-day "festival of lights," as about 3,000 Jews gathered under the palm trees at CityPlace, a $550-million development in the heart of West Palm Beach, Fla. If celebrants stood in the right place on the balcony last Sunday night, they could see the whole panorama of Macy's, the New York Pretzel stand, a nonsectarian holiday tree and the eight-foot-tall menorah.

On the map, this is a long way from the boroughs of New York City. But the two regions are connected by tradition, statistics and what can only be called the Seinfeldian ties that bind. Research in 2000 found that 230,000 people live in Jewish households in Palm Beach County -- America's sixth-largest Jewish community.

The mood at this celebration seemed to be, "Happy Hanukkah, no matter what." Rabbis offered meditations about sacrifice and justice. The local congressman loudly praised the military and attacked the enemy.

Hanukkah traditions include a note of defiance. The holiday centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels, led by the Maccabees, defeated their Greek oppressors. The rite of lighting candles -- one on the first night, increasing to eight -- began with a miracle linked to this victory. When it came time to purify the recaptured temple, only one container of ritually pure oil could be found for its eternal flame. Tradition says this one-day supply burned for eight days.

For centuries, Hanukkah has symbolized the need for Jews to defend the purity of their faith, when asked to assimilate. Today, many insist that the holiday is a celebration of religious liberty and pluralism -- period.

"In every generation, there are Maccabees," shouted Rabbi Isaac Jarett of Temple Emanu-El, one of nine participating rabbis from the various branches of Judaism. "In every generation, there are people who seek to destroy us -- as unbelievable as that seems.

"Right now, we have Maccabees in Afghanistan fighting to preserve Western Civilization. ... So why did you come here? You came here tonight, not because you wanted to be here. You came because you needed to be here."

It was hard to find anyone present who was not from the New York City area or somehow connected -- through family ties -- with the events of Sept. 11. It was impossible to find anyone who didn't connect recent events in Israel and in the United States. When the music played, even the most frail and elderly people in the courtyard rose to their feet to sing "The Hope," the national anthem of Israel, and then "The Star Spangled Banner."

When the anthems were over, Baby Boomer Gregg Lerman kept bouncing 9-month-old Hope in his arms. Her sparkling ear studs matched her father's and her tiny t-shirt proclaimed: "My First Chanukah."

"What's this all about? It's about rebirth and freedom," said Lerman, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y. "That's what Hanukkah is supposed to be about and that is certainly what it means to me right now. It's about survival in the face of adversity, both here in America and, as always, in Israel."

After an hour or so, the sermons ended and the partying began. People shopped, danced, sang traditional songs and made pilgrimages to Starbucks and The Cheesecake Factory. Children lobbied for more presents and parents headed to the parking deck with their heavy shopping bags.

But this was one year when everyone knew Hanukkah was about something else.

"It's about the triumph of good over evil," said Dener. "After Sept. 11, this holiday is suddenly very relevant. The concept of a life and death struggle between good and evil is not theoretical right now. It's real."