'A Rugrats Chanukah' Retrospective

The Nickelodeon holiday special turns 21 this year

There are endless songs, movies and television specials about Christmas, but somehow Chanukah ends up getting left out in the cold, sometimes literally because it usually falls in December. Sure, you’ve got “Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” in the song category and “The Hebrew Hammer” when it comes to movies, but beyond these examples, the latke-centric holiday is somewhat lacking in the pop culture landscape. As such, you don’t soon forget a Chanukah special when it does arrive—like a well, Chanukah, gift.

Maybe that’s why “A Rugrats Chanukah” — which turns 21 this year — has achieved a cult-like status among fans of the classic Nickelodeon show. Some watch it every year the way they do with the Passover episode. In fact, the Chabad house at my alma mater, Drexel University in Philadelphia, screens it annually as part of its eight-day programming schedule for the holiday. Along with “Hey Arnold,” “Rugrats” was one of those rare ’90s Nicktoons that explored Judaism, even if it was for an episode or two.

Tommy Pickles as Moses in the Passover episode

“A Rugrats Chanukah” was written by J. David Stem and David N. Weiss, the writing duo behind movies like “Shrek 2,” “The Rugrats Movie,” “Rugrats in Paris” and “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.” “I’m the Jew that can work on Christmas and Easter and the Super Bowl. “I’ll work 24-6, [Stem] works 24-7,” Weiss said of his non-Jewish writing partner at the 12th Annual National Jewish Retreat. Weiss was actually raised as a Reform Jew who converted to Christianity as a teenager, becoming a filmmaker for the Presbyterian Church in Dublin. In his 20s, he returned to Judaism and steadily became more and more religious, taking courses on religion and keeping kosher with his wife. The "Rugrats" Chanukah episode was the first project he worked on after leaving the church.

According to Weiss, Nickelodeon originally wanted to do a New Year’s special, which didn’t resonate with him and Stem; the two wanted to do Chanukah. When they went to pitch all of the Season 4 ideas to the network’s bigwigs, the president wasn’t feeling the New Year’s pitch. “The president is a nice Jewish guy and he says, ‘What’s this about New Year’s? That doesn’t make any sense,’” recounted Weiss. “I said, ‘Well, how about Chanukah?’ and he said, ‘That’s great! Let’s do Chanukah!’”  

“To Nickelodeon’s credit, [the Chanukkah special] was bold and the right thing to do. It made sense because Didi Pickles and her parents were Jewish and her husband Stu was not,” said Arlene Klasky, one of the co-creators of “Rugrats,” in an interview with Blueprint. According to Klasky (of Klasky Csupo), the impetus to make the special was due in part to the positive reception of the first Jewish-themed episode that ran the previous spring. “The Passover special was a huge success. There was yet another great opportunity for storytelling around Chanukah,” she said.

Weiss and Stem’s writing on “A Rugrats Chanukah” is memorable in the way that it tells a simplified, yet accurate version of the Chanukah story about how Greeks forced their secularized culture onto Israel and how the Maccabees — under Judah — ultimately forced them out of the land. They even touched on the ransacking of the Beit Hamikdash. As a result, you’ve got the iconic line, “A Maccababy’s gotta do what a Maccababy’s gotta do,” uttered by the show’s main hero, Tommy Pickles. Weiss called the episode, “A great way to bring all this Judaism onto Nickelodeon for millions of American children to watch every year.” Just like he grew up with Rudolph and Frosty, he wanted to give Jewish kids their own holiday programming that they could grow up with.

The episode (simply titled ”Chanukah” on TV) premiered on Dec. 4, 1996, and the world hasn’t been the same since. It was directed by Raymie Musquiz, an acclaimed animation director; he most recently directed “Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie.” Most of the special takes place at a synagogue where Tommy’s Grandpa Boris (Michael Bell) clashes with his old “frienemy” Shlomo (Yiddish theater star Fyvush Finkel). Boris claims that Shlomo always has to outdo him or steal his glory, calling him a “gonif,” or thief, in Hebrew. The babies, too young to understand the holiday, mishear Angelica when she talks about the “meaning” of Chanukah (emphasis on the Chhh sound) and believe that Shlomo is the “meanie” of Chanukah and set out to make him less grumpy.

If you re-watch as an adult, Shlomo is a much more tragic character and it’s quite sweet when he ends up bonding with the babies and Brosi by the end. Weiss said that the emotional crux of the episode was based on his own struggles in trying to conceive a child with his wife. At the start, the main plot details were there for Weiss and Stem, but the reconciliation between Boris and Shlomo was still elusive. “As a writer, when you get stuck, and this isn’t just for writing, this is for all of life. What you do is you go towards the pain,” said Weiss. “You look inside and you say, ‘Where is the wound?’ because really the story is about someone overcoming. It’s really the story of healing … So, I looked inside one day and I said, ‘Ok, we got this whole story, where do I hurt?’”

Anyone who grew up attending holiday functions at their local synagogue will feel right at home watching this episode, as the congregants enjoy latkes, chocolate coins (gelt), spinning dreidels, and a production of the Chanukah story from the community’s elder denizens. Yiddish accents and skullcaps abound, but not everyone was pleased with the depiction of Jews in the special; the Anti-Defamation League compared some of the character designs to Jewish caricatures done by Nazi newspapers in the 1930s. The reaction is a bit over-the-top, especially in a holiday special for children that highlights the unique customs of Judaism in a loving way. “[Latkes] have clogged our people’s arteries for 2,000 years, yet we survive!” proclaims Grandpa Boris in a particularly memorable moment.

Still, you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy “A Rugrats Chanukah.”

“I’m sure Jewish families like to share it with their children,” said Klasky. “Also kids of diverse religions and cultures can appreciate the story seen through a ‘Rugrats’ lens. As the ‘Rugrats’ audience grew up, some now in their 30’s, the nostalgia factor of the series and other ‘90s shows I assume played a part in the Hanukkah special’s popularity.”

PLEASE NOTE: Due to his extremely busy schedule, David N. Weiss was not able to be fully interviewed by Blueprint in time for this article. However, he directed us to review his remarks at the 12 Annual National Jewish Retreat, which is hyperlinked above. So, any quotes taken from there are indeed authentic and authorized. 

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