As someone who hates shopping, I boldly decided to initially tackle my holiday list at Bed, Bath & Beyond. In search of an aisle I could actually have room to walk in, what immediately caught my attention were the three large displays dressed in blue featuring a wide array of Hanukkah-themed merchandising.
In addition to doll and book “The Mensch on a Bench,” which was featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank” a few seasons ago (and I am now the proud owner of), the products included gelt-filled dreidels; candles, napkins and tablecloths; menorahs; sizable decorations (including a white bear wearing a yarmulke); a tree topper; stockings and gingerbread kits. There were even Hanukkah-themed products for our four-legged friends.
While maybe not the appropriate reaction, all I could think of was the slogan, “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” And I am not referring to the old Virginia Slims cigarette brand. Since when is Hanukkah so relevant?
As a young child growing up in Flushing, Queens, I wondered why the media and the merchandisers ignored what was a very big deal in my neighborhood. One of my neighbors was “The Nanny” herself, Fran Drescher, so you can imagine what the environment was like. The women had big hair and nasal voices. The men worked hard and said very little. The boys played ringalevio and stick ball. The girls flocked together ogling over David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman and Donny Osmond. And you could get blinded by the sea of small orange lights in all those apartment windows on Hanukkah. It used to be such a big deal for me – and so many other kids — to turn one of those small electric lights to the right on each of the eight nights.
Glued to the tube, however, I have no recollection of any of those then perfect TV families acknowledging this holiday. While I did hear of one sitcom featuring a Jewish family, “The Goldbergs” starring Gertrude Berg, which ran from 1949 to 1956, television in the 1960s was not a breeding ground for fictional Jews. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be any Hebrew folks in Mayberry or Hooterville (and only a select few in the large cities).
By the 1970s, the subject of Judaism – and Jewish characters – became more prominent (as did the frequency of series featuring African-American families, mixed marriages and gay characters thanks to producer Normal Lear). While Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was certainly a huge “get” for my people, I also recall hearing that the producers nixed Ed Asner as Lou Grant also being Jewish because “one was apparently enough”. Baby steps, I guess.
But Rhoda did acknowledge Hanukkah, and Michael (Ken Olin) and Hope (Mel Harris) pondering the how to properly celebrate the holiday in their mixed marriage on “thirtysomething” in the late 1980s was a clear sign the tide was turning. And then there Joel (Rob Morrow) discussing his faith in Alaska-set “Northern Exposure;” Ross (David Schwimmer) dressing as a Holiday Armadillo on “Friends;” “Sesame Street,” “The Rugrats” and “South Park” theming episodes on it; aforementioned Fran Drescher on “The Nanny;” Seth (Adam Brody) merging Christmas and Hanukkah on “The OC” as “Chrismukkah;” and, more recently, episodes “Brothers & Sisters,” “Glee” and “The Colbert Report.” The turning point for Hanukkah’s rise in pop culture visibility, of course, can be traced back to 1995 when Adam Sandler first crooned the holiday on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (which he just updated his fourth version of to include mentions of Adam Levine, Harry Potter and disgraced former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle).
Obviously, the face of society has changed on the small screen, hence the sudden relevance of Hanukkah (amongst other things). Back in the 1972-73 TV season when then married couple David Birney and Meredith Baxter played a Jewish and Catholic couple in CBS sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie,” religious groups protested over this publicized mixed marriage. Now, if a family-themed series does not include a wide variety of relationships outside of the once traditional definition of matrimony it is not considered realistic. And Hanukkah, as a result, is now one of the “in” things. More mixed marriages means there are now more people who celebrate it, and I am proud that we, too, are now on the forefront.
“Chag Urim Sameach!”