For some people, nothing says the start of the holiday season better than classic movies, with perhaps “It’s a Wonderful Life” taking the honor of the most popular.
But for the Jewish millennials of today, there’s another cult classic that gets us in the Chanukah spirit: “A Rugrats Chanukah” — a special episode of the animated TV series Rugrats, which ran on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 2004.
For the two Jewish millennial writers of this article, now seemed like the perfect time to revisit our favorite holiday flick — and it did not disappoint.
The original episode aired on Dec. 4, 1996 — to put that in perspective, we were just barely 4 years old (sorry).
The story goes that Tommy Pickles — the lead rugrat always dressed only in a diaper, blue crop top and no shoes (very practical) — is celebrating Chanukah with his family for the first time, but he’s not sure what exactly the holiday is or what it means.
Tommy’s Jewish mother is making potato pancakes in the kitchen (his cousin Angelica gets excited to eat pancakes for dinner, then is sadly disappointed to discover latkes are just potatoes). “The miracle is these things have clogged our people’s arteries for 2,000 years, yet we survive,” Tommy’s grandfather says.
Meanwhile, Tommy’s non-Jewish father tries to create a mobile menorah, which is as adorable as it gets for an interfaith family in the ’90s.
They all go to synagogue (or, as Tommy calls it, the “synamabob”) where his Russian grandfather gets into some ruckus while acting out the story of Chanukah and Grandma sits in the pews knitting, as you do at shul.
In the babies’ imaginations, they too act out the story of Chanukah in biblical times, complete with Tommy actually wearing shoes (gladiator sandals) and playing Judah Maccabee himself: “A Maccababy’s gotta do what a Maccababy’s gotta do!”
The cartoon is astonishingly accurate and tells the story of Chanukah in a way that is clear and concise for kids (and to be honest, for adults, too). Scriptwriters David N. Weiss and J. David Stem even took the liberty of using Chanukah-related puns, such as renaming Phil (of twins Phil and Lil) as Philistine.
Granted, they left out some of the gorier details of fighting a war, but we were surprised in watching the episode how much of the story of Chanukah we actually forgot (sorry, Bubbe).
Overall, this episode was insanely clever for a kid’s show on Nickelodeon. We haven’t laughed this hard at a Chanukah TV special since the first time we discovered Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” — or probably since the first time we watched this show as toddlers.
The bit where Lil suggests to Tommy — who thinks the menorah candles are for his birthday (every night) — that “maybe you’re all growed up now and need to get a job” had us laughing to keep from crying because of the realness.
The Yiddish phrases were flawlessly executed — “Oy gevalt!” exclaimed Tommy’s grandfather upon seeing that the newspaper used a picture of rival Shlomo instead a photo of himself for an article about their synagogue Chanukah play. And the characters all pronounced “Chanukah” with the exaggerated “ch” of every non-Jewish friend you’ve ever had trying to be sensitive and say the holiday correctly but with much more phlegm than necessary.
All the adult Jewish characters actually look like people we’ve encountered in our own synagogues, even the Pickles family.
As far as we’re concerned, the Pickles are the Jewish family of the ’90s, illustrating the troubles and tribulations interfaith families deal with on a regular basis, but especially during the holidays.
As Tommy’s father gets ready to leave, he tells mom Didi he’ll meet her at the church, to which his father, Lou, says, “It’s a synagogue, Hanukkah boy!”
In all, 20 years later, it seems the miracle of Chanukah is that this special is every bit as iconic — and educational — as it was when it first aired. JN
This article originally ran in the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.