What Hanukkah’s portrayal in pop culture means to American Jews

When I was growing up in suburban New York, Hanukkah was not grounded in religious observance. Having no clue that there are traditional Hebrew blessings that accompany the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, we invented our own wishes, awkwardly voiced out loud, for happiness and peace.

Then again, the festival of Hanukkah demands the performance of fewer religious rituals than most other Jewish observances. Even the most pious Jews do not take off from work during the eight-day festival. After all, the holiday is never mentioned in the Bible, since the events that it commemorates occurred hundreds of years after the Bible was written.

Today, this minor festival of Hanukkah has become supersized into a Jewish version of Christmas – a time for family gatherings, gift-giving and festivity. But it is through pop culture that Jews have found their own identity, in which they can take pride.

Hanukkah in America

The true story of Hanukkah is of a conflict between two different groups of Jews – those who were eager to become part of the Hellenistic culture represented by the Syrian-Greeks against a band of zealots called the Maccabees, who sought to maintain Jewish rites.

Today, in the U.S., however, only 15 percent of American Jews view their Jewish identity as rooted in religion. And for many American Jews, aspects of Hanukkah that are most attractive tend to be those that mirror what many other Americans are doing at this time of year – such as celebrating Christmas.

As some economists have pointed out, Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated much more widely among American Jews who have children. Notably, Jews who live in Christian majority areas, end up spending more on Hanukkah gifts than those who reside in mostly Jewish neighborhoods. By contrast, Hanukkah in Israel is not as significant.

Hanukkah in pop culture

Nonetheless, American Jews have carved out a place for Hanukkah in pop culture.

Seeing their own group depicted in pop culture has been an important source of pride for American Jews throughout the last century, as I observed in my book on Jewish vaudeville, theater and film.

Jewish comedians over the last few decades have mined humor from the need that Jews have to feel that their minority identity is still a meaningful and salient one, even while poking gentle fun at Christmas.

An example is that of comedian Jon Lovitz’s Hanukkah Harry premiered on “Saturday Night Live” in 1989.

[embedded content] Hanukkah Harry.
As a gray-bearded, ultra-Orthodox Jewish character, Hanukkah Harry fills in for an ailing Santa to deliver presents on Christmas Eve only to face disappointment from Christian children when they receive chocolate coins and dreidels, a Hanukkah spinning top, which seem paltry and foreign to them.