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Television’s Hanukkah Epidodes Miss the Point

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In Op-Ed pieces and in casual conversations, Jews recently noted the early appearance on the 1994 calendar of Hanukkah, the winter festival that this year fell just days after Thanksgiving. Finally, people said, Hanukkah would stand on its own, a holiday equal to and now separate from that better-known holiday with which it is so often linked in elementary-school pageants, greeting cards and public decorations.

But television seems to have missed that point. As I sat at home watching TV on a Saturday night in December, I saw two shows that revealed a perception about the two holidays that is a good deal more complex--and more troubling for Jews--than the commentaries about this year’s calendar suggested.

As do many dramas and sitcoms, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “The Five Mrs. Buchanans” typically add topical themes to commemorate national holidays and public events. On the night of Dec. 10, when the shows dealt with the relationship between Christian and Jewish holidays, Hanukkah did something of a disappearing act.

On “Dr. Quinn,” an Orthodox Jewish family of peddlers appeared in the tiny frontier town and were met with bigotry and even a mini-pogrom. But even the surliest townsman had a change of heart, and at the end of the show, they joined the family in lighting the last Hanukkah candle before inviting them, in turn, to help light the town tree.

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On “The Five Mrs. Buchanans,” one of the four Buchanan daughters-in-law--Alexandria, who is Jewish--accidentally broke the nasty mother-in-law’s ceramic creche Jesus figurine. (“Maybe I should say the Romans did it,” Alexandria says. Very funny.) Alexandria rebukes Mother Buchanan for her uncharitable comments about the family’s religion and symbols. Isn’t she, after all, part of the family? Doesn’t her Hanukkah menorah--the eight-branch candelabrum--

count? After the electricity is cut off, a rapprochement occurs when Mother Buchanan lights all the candles. Alexandria, observing that sentiments are more important than symbols, forgives her. With that, Mother Buchanan wishes her a Merry Christmas.

There are several problems with these pictures. Each show treated Hanukkah as just a preface to the real candle-lighting, which is that of the Christmas tree. Indeed, the Jewish holiday was assimilated, as it were, into the larger seasonal pageant of good feelings.

Far from relieving Hanukkah of the burden to measure up to Christmas--which, as a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, it can never do--the timing of the festival this year reveals a sort of crisis in the way both Jews and non-Jews view the two holidays. For Jews who are strongly committed to their religion, of course, none of this makes very much difference. But for Jews tempted by the lures of Christmas, which are omnipresent in our culture even before Thanksgiving, “Hanukkah” is extended far beyond its calendrical boundaries, long enough so that it is possible to exchange gifts and feel a holiday-induced connection to the majority of American society. For non-Jews, who might be educated and informed by the appearance of symbols, the timing means that the enormous hanukkiah in the Beverly Center and the tiny one in my vet’s office, still in place weeks after Hanukkah, look suspiciously like meaningless tokens designed to placate, lost amid the glitter of green and red.

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The odd celebration of Hanukkah long after it’s over is a discrepancy that underscores the uncomfortable status the holiday has attained in American culture. The inclusion of dreidels, say, in a school’s Christmas pageant has become a painless way to signify diversity and multiculturalism. A holiday that is easily understood if not already familiar to the average cosmopolitan American, Hanukkah has also become a convenient way for American “secular” culture, which is inherently Christian, to have it both ways.

But contrary to Alexandria’s pronouncement on “The Five Mrs. Buchanans,” the holiday season is not just about good will, which we all share or at least aspire to. After all, Christians and Jews believe in decency toward fellow humans, as do Muslims. The holiday season is most emphatically about symbols. What gives our lives meaning are the varied symbols that signify our beliefs, which is why the insensitivities of the TV shows are so important: They too are symbols that impart meaning, helping us define who we are and how we understand ourselves and others.


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