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, 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?

Whatever happened to Advent?

The Rev. Timothy Paul Jones kept hearing one thing when -- four weeks before Christmas -- he brought a wreath and some purple and pink candles into his Southern Baptist church near Tulsa, Okla. And all the people said: "Advent? Don't Catholics do that?"

This prickly response wasn't all that unusual, in light of the history of Christmas in America, said Jones, who now teaches leadership and church ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"In the dominant American, Protestant traditions of this country, we've never had a Christian calendar that told us anything about Advent and the 12 days of Christmas," explained Jones, author of "Church History Made Easy."

"We went from the Puritans, and they hardly celebrated Christmas at all, to this privatized, individualized approach to the season that you see all around us. ... If you mention the church calendar many people think you've gone Papist or something. They really don't care what Christians did through the centuries."

The history of Christmas has always been complicated, he noted, with religious rites colliding with traditions defined by family, community and commerce. However, the basic structure of the Advent and Christmas seasons has -- until recently, historically speaking -- remained the same.

In a short essay for laypeople, Jones noted that "Advent ... comes to us from a Latin term that means 'toward the coming.' The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. ... By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations." Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.

For centuries, these seasons were shaped by traditions in extended families and small communities, patterns of rural and village life that endured from generation to generation, century after century, until the upheavals of the industrial revolution. During the 18th and 19th centuries, millions of people in Europe and then America pulled up their roots and moved into major cities.

Christmas evolved into a "gigantic party that ended up in the streets" to celebrate that legions of urban laborers were given a day off from work, noted Jones. It was a day for revelry, drinking, carousing and feasting, a holiday best observed in taverns and public houses instead of churches.

This was not a lovely Christmas tableau complete with candle-lit processions, prayers and carols. Something needed to be done.

Thus, Christmas began to change again. The goal was to create a kinder, gentler season, one centered in individual family homes. What emerged, with a big assist from advertising and other forms of mass media, was a "radically new and almost completely secular Christmas myth," explained Jones. This was Christmas as pictured in the famous poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," popular songs, advertisements and scores of Thomas Nast cartoons.

Santa Claus replaced St. Nicholas and Advent vanished altogether, which was fine with most Americans because they never knew the season existed in the first place.

"What you had then was a holiday that was very appealing and positive, from an American, Protestant perspective," said Jones. "It was very individualistic and centered on events in the family home, with all of that decorating, cooking, gift-giving and people traveling to be home for Christmas.

"This left you one step away from the full-blown commercialization of Christmas that took over in the 20th Century."

Jones stressed that he isn't naive enough to think that churches can turn this around by printing some Advent brochures to help families add another wrinkle to an already complex season. Still, it wouldn't hurt for pastors and parents to stop and think about ways to let Advent be Advent and then to let Christmas be Christmas.

"Americans don't like to wait," he said. "We want what we want and we want it now. ... That's the way that we do Christmas. We mix and we match, taking a little bit of this and a whole lot of that. We rush around trying to create the Christmas we think is going to work for us.

"But Advent asks us to slow down and wait -- to wait for Christmas. Most people don't think that approach will work very well at all."

Passover 2009, minus God

Passover is almost here, which means Jewish families are preparing once again to taste familiar tastes, ask familiar questions and hear the familiar answers that have united them through the ages. Why is matzoh the only bread at Passover? Because the Hebrews had no time to bake leavened bread as they fled Egypt. Why dip bitter herbs into chopped apples, dates, nuts and wine? Because this paste resembles the clay they used in slavery to make bricks. Why dip parsley into salt water? The parsley represents new life, mixed with tears.

This year, some liberal Jews will hear a new question during the ritual meals that define this weeklong season, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8.

The question: "Why is there an orange on the Seder plate?"

The answer, in a new rite written by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer of New York, will please many unorthodox Jews.

"To remind us that all people have a legitimate place in Jewish life, no less than an orange on the Seder plate, regardless of gender or sexual identity," states "The Liberated Haggadah," a rite for "cultural, secular and humanistic" Jews. "And to teach us, too, how absurd it is to exclude anyone who wants to sit at our table, partake of our meal, and celebrate with us the gift of life and the gift of freedom."

The goal is to provide an enjoyable and educational Passover for Jews who are united by culture, art, music, literature, foods and folkways -- but not faith. Nearly half of American Jews, said Schweitzer, consider themselves "secular" or "cultural" Jews, as opposed to "religious" Jews.

"This is not some small offshoot, it is half of our Jewish world," stressed the rabbi, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, part of a network of 30 "secular Jewish communities" in North America.

"We have common values and experiences, even if we are not united in the practice of the Jewish religion. ... We still want to find a way to celebrate these rituals that define the major transition points in our lives and in the lives of Jewish people throughout our history."

However, Schweitzer faced a major challenge in writing this particular "Haggadah," which fits into a tradition of new Passover texts that honor specific moments in Jewish history and culture. Many families freely adapt pieces of different Seder texts to create their own unique rituals.

At the heart of Passover, is the biblical story of Moses and the spectacular series of miracles that helped the Jewish people escape from captivity in Egypt. However, the "Liberated Haggadah" argues that scholars have deconstructed most of the Exodus narrative, leaving modern Jews with a mere "myth" that is rich with symbolism and meaning, but not the gravity or authority of historical fact.

Even casual of participants in this new Seder are sure to notice that a big, big player is missing in this postmodern dinner drama.

Moses is still here and so is his sister, Miriam, along with a quiet character named Nahshon who may or may not have jumped into the Red Sea, which may or may not have parted to allow the Hebrews to escape. But the God of the Bible is gone.

"In early versions of the Haggadah," notes this text, "Moses makes only a passing appearance, and all of the credit for the escape goes to Moses' god Yahweh. Here, in this version we prefer to tell, Yahweh is the one who only gets a passing reference."

This is important, because many "secular" or "cultural" Jews are atheists and many are agnostics. Others, noted Schweitzer, believe in some form of divine power, but not in the kind of God who hears prayers and intervenes in human life.

Thus, traditional prayers are free to evolve into poems or meditations on "human empowerment." What was once an ancient story of divine liberation can become a story of human liberation to inspire all who suffer oppression and yearn for freedom.

"We want," the rabbi explained, "to say what we believe and to believe what we say. We think that people who do not believe should not have to use language in these rites that make it sound like they do, in fact, believe. ... Our goal is to live good, just, moral lives and we believe that we have the power to do that on our own."

Gently fighting for Christmas

Merry Christmas. No, honest, as in "the 12 days of" you know what between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.

If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, you can head over to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There you will find an interactive calendar that bravely documents the fact that, according to centuries of Christian tradition, the quiet season called Advent has just ended and the 12-day Christmas season has just begun.

So cease stripping the decorations off your tree and postpone its premature trip to the curb. There is still time to prepare for a Twelfth Night party and then the grand finale on Jan. 6, when the feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi.

"You would be amazed how hard it was to find information on the World Wide Web about all of this," lamented Joe Larson, the USCCB's director of digital media. "We wanted to link to sites that would help tell Catholics what we believe about these seasons and why we do what we do -- or what we are supposed to do -- during Advent and Christmas. ...

"What we ended up with is definitely not a finished product, but we'll expand it in the future. We got the ball rolling this year."

The materials gathered at do not, at first glance, appear to be all that rebellious.

The website contains pull-down menus providing scriptures, prayers, meditations and biographies of the saints whose feasts are celebrated during these seasons. Note that the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra -- yes, that St. Nicholas -- was back on Dec. 6. Another page suggests family movies for the seasons, some obvious (think "The Nativity Story") and some not so obvious (think "Ernest Saves Christmas").

The Christmas season has always been complicated. Many early Christians celebrated the birthday of Jesus on May 20, while others used dates in April and March. Most early believers, however, emphasized the Jan. 6 feast of the Epiphany.

Then, sometime before 354, Christians in Rome began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25, which created tension with the Eastern churches that were using different dates. Then, in 567, the Second Council of Tours established Dec. 25 as the nativity date, Jan. 6 as Epiphany and the 12 days in between as the Christmas season -- the liturgical calendar's biggest party.

The problem, of course, is that Advent now clashes with the 30-something or 40-something days of the secular season -- called "The Holidays" -- that begins with the shopping mall rituals of Thanksgiving weekend. For most Americans, Christmas Day is the end of "The Holidays," even though it is the beginning of the real Christmas season.

While many Christians still observe Advent -- especially Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants -- some older Roman Catholics may remember when the guidelines for the season were stricter. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the season is still observed by many as "Nativity Lent."

"In a pre-Vatican II context, Advent looked a lot like Lent," noted Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB's Secretariat of Divine Worship. "It was the season you used to prepare for Christmas, the way Lent helps you prepare for Easter."

Today, it's even hard for priests to follow the rhythms of the church's prayers, hymns and rites, he said. Hilgartner said he tries to stay away from Christmas tree lots and shopping malls until at least halfway through Advent. He accepts invitations to some Christmas parties, even though they are held in Advent.

Now that it's finally Christmas, he feels a pang of frustration when he turns on a radio or television and finds that -- after being bombarded with "holiday" stuff for weeks -- the true season is missing in action.

"It would be different, of course, if we all lived in a monastic community and the liturgical calendar totally dominated our lives," said Hilgartner. "Then we could get away with celebrating the true seasons and we wouldn't even whisper the word 'Christmas' until the start of the Christmas Mass. But the church doesn't exist in a vacuum and we can't live in a cultural bubble. ...

"But it's good to try to be reasonable. It's good to slow down and it's good to celebrate Christmas, at least a little, during Christmas. It's good to try."

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."

Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas?

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays.

A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus.

The church hierarchy sprang into action.

"There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand," Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child's question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

As a public service to cautious clergy, it might help to review the few options available to those considering discussing the spiritual and commercial versions of Christmas with children. Santa is hard to avoid.

Nevertheless, remaining silent is the first option. Many clergy and parents do not choose silence because it affirms the schizophrenic, secular-sacred Christmas split.

The second option is to nix Santa, right up front. columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has offered blunt reasons for why Christian parents should -- gently -- reject the Santa Claus scenario.

"First, it's a big fat lie," she said. "What kind of an example are you setting here? How stupid are your kids going to feel when they realize they fell for this? What else of what you taught them are they going to doubt?"

Wait, she's just getting started: "The Santa myth teaches kids ingratitude. ... They learn that goodies magically appear and don't cost anybody anything. Their role in life is just to open packages and enjoy. It also teaches greed. We may say piously that we want our children to develop just and generous virtues, but filling them with images of a toy-wielding potentate with a lifetime pass on eToys will knock all that flatter than Kansas."

There is a third option for tradition-loving clergy and parents and, truth be told, I have never read a headline about a pastor being nailed for using it.

Call it the St. Nicholas option. It is especially easy for believers in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican churches that emphasize the lives of the saints. The goal is to teach children about the 4th century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, while noting that elements of his story later helped inspire the secular story of Santa Claus.

According to church tradition, he was born into wealth and gave his inheritance to the poor. The most famous story about the bishop is captured in the Charity of St. Nicholas icon. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from ruin by dropping gold coins through a window.

These gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry. The rest, as they say, is history.

The feast of St. Nicholas falls on Dec. 6 and, in parts of the world, remains a day for gift giving and alms for the poor. It is also a good time to discuss the pre-Christmas season of Advent or, in Eastern tradition, Nativity Lent.

The message to children is simple. Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. But he is not what Christmas is all about.

Playing the St. Nicholas card is the best option, but it is not without its risks, said Father Nicholas Bargoot, an Eastern Orthodox priest here in South Florida.

"With all the commercialism that surrounds us, we still have to be careful when we make that link that we do not to tarnish the reality of St. Nicholas and who he is," he said. "It is still easy for young children to be confused. I mean, what is St. Nicholas doing at the mall?"

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 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."

Passover questions for 2004

The lobby contains what security experts call a "mantrap."

Guards monitor these bomb-proof doors, along with exterior video cameras and a device that sniffs the mail. Windows are laminated with plastic, so an explosion would not send glass shards slicing into offices. Massive concrete barriers could stop a truck.

Welcome to the American Jewish Committee's home in New York. This isn't mere "ethnic panic." No, "lethal anti-Semitism" is on the rise, even in places long thought to be safe, noted Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor at Commentary magazine.

This will not be an ordinary Passover.

"More synagogues have been destroyed in France in the past five years by acts of desecration