Why are there no Jewish holiday movies?

Campus Voices

Though my family and I are neither Christians nor observers of Christmas, we have our own little Christmas tradition of sorts. Each year, we get together, watch a movie in the local theater, and then eat Chinese food at a restaurant (yes, we took that from A Christmas Story). While we don’t watch Christmas movies on the day of Christmas, I’d like to think that we’d try and watch Hanukkah movies on Hanukkah, if there wasn’t a major hurdle to this idea – there are quite literally no good Hanukkah movies. The terribly mediocre array of choices include: cheesy Hallmark productions about a Christian learning about Hanukkah while falling in love with a Jew, a low-budget Disney TV movie about a man coaching a Jewish basketball team, a film about a boy who’d rather celebrate Christmas and a very Adam Sandler-esque animated movie starring Adam Sandler. 

Be it for their odd topic or niche focus, none of these films are a particularly poignant “Hanukkah movie.” This isn’t just a quirk specific to Hanukkah, either. There’s a severe shortage of films centered around Jewish holidays; the ones we do have either have a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes or simply retell stories that we’ve heard before in a lackluster way. And this problem is even more pronounced for other religions that don’t fit into the Westernized view of religion. This lack of movies essentially others the people whose holidays aren’t included in the holiday movie tradition, serving as another sign of how so much of the Western world is centered around Christianity, with the rest of us painted as perpetual foreigners. And while some may argue that Christmas has been secularized to the point that it is meant to be a holiday for everyone, these movies are still made for this holiday in particular – a holiday with very specific roots – not for holidays from other religions. 

This lack of non-Christian holiday films stems from a variety of factors related to commerciality, representation, and familiarity. Firstly, there is an abundance of Christmas movies because Christians are likely a significant portion of those who make movies due to being a majority of the United States population. Naturally, when pitching ideas for holiday movies, they lean towards those holidays with which they’re most familiar, resulting in plenty of Christmas movies. However, this reason ignores both that a large number of Jewish people are involved in the creation of Christmas movies and that the decision-makers in the industry include not just creators, but also financiers, who back films that seem profitable. 

Secondly, Christmas movies are smart films from a profit-seeking perspective: they have a dedicated, defined audience; a universal appeal; and, above all else, rewatchability and permanence. While most movies fade out of relevance over time, people are generally willing to watch Christmas movies again and again, which translates into profitability. This is especially true when considered alongside the fact that these movies can be made incredibly cheaply with unknown actors and recycled scripts. 

And lastly, these movies follow similar arcs and cover familiar, universally applicable themes — family, relationships, love. While the specifics of a Christmas movie may be vague, to borrow from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know one when I see it. These themes serve as a grab bag of ideas, giving Christmas movies existing ideas and guidelines instead of forcing filmmakers to debate with themselves around what to make and why, making Christmas movies the go-to due to the sheer difference in production ease.

This issue is not something that will likely ever be fully fixed, at least for the time being. Instead I (and others if they wish, which I encourage) choose to instead focus on what my religion does have for the holidays, as cliche as that sounds. My religion has over a dozen holidays, each with its own quirks and traditions. For Purim, we dress up in costumes and engage in Purim Spiels, parodies of the story of Purim with new settings but the same characters. On Passover, we make intricate and ritualistic meals and find ways to make the food we normally eat, but without leavened ingredients (which is surprisingly difficult). And on Hanukkah, we make fried foods, tell stories, play games of chance, and sing songs. 

What’s more, I come from a religion with a rich tradition of storytelling that dates back millennia and spans continents. Every holiday and every occasion has dozens of stories, for any purpose. Want to teach someone about basic religious principles? We have a story about a man who asked rabbis to explain the entirety of our religion while standing on one foot. Want to laugh? We have an entire library of stories about a shtetl called Chelm, a town of fools. And so, while we wait for things to change – as long as that may take – I hope that we can find some measure of solace in finding what we do have.

Zev van Zanten | Campus Arts Editor

Zev van Zanten is a Trinity sophomore and campus arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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