We have certainly come a long way when it comes to accurate portrayals of Jews and Jewish themes in movies and TV. But for some reason, one thing that’s seriously lacking — yes, still, in 2018 — is the amount of films that exist about Hanukkah.
Despite growing up in a relatively observant home, I pretty much spent the December breaks of my youth watching Christmas movies like Santa Clause and Home Alone because the Jewish holiday movies were so scarce — A Rugrats Chanukah and Eight Crazy Nights get old really quickly, let me tell you.
And sure, there are depictions of Hanukkah in mainstream TV and movies, like the “Holiday Armadillo” episode of Friends and that Chrismukkah celebration in the Meet the Parents sequel Little Fockers. But the options are still limited as far as movies about Hanukkah go — which is crazy, because isn’t Hollywood like fifty-seven percent Jewish?
But don’t despair — there is hope: There are nonetheless a decent amount of films with Jewish themes and/or characters that are worth a viewing over the holidays. So, after you light the candles, fry up some latkes, and open gifts, sit down with your kids and stream these must-watch flicks, each with its own lesson that’s almost as inspiring as the Maccabeats’ and the story of the Festival of Lights itself.
Fiddler on the Roof
This iconic musical follows a poor milkman in 1880s Russia who tries to marry off his five daughters with the help of a matchmaker (and some really catchy tunes, like, um, “Matchmaker.”). It’ll give the kids a glimpse into Jewish history and teach them the importance of adhering to our tradition. Plus: dancing!
The Prince of Egypt
Show your kids that there were Disney films before Frozen. This 1998 classic is an animated retelling of the Book of Exodus, where Prince Moses is tasked with setting the Jewish people free. (OK, yes, this is story of Passover, but a holiday miracle is a holiday miracle, right?) Also, side note: the Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston duet from the soundtrack, “When You Believe,” is easily one of the best songs of the era.
An American Tail
Another animated must-watch is this 1986 gem, which tells the “American Dream” story of Jewish mouse Fievel Mousekewitz and his family, who emigrate from Ukraine to New York to escape the pogroms (with a few hardships along the way). At its core, it’s a tale of Jewish triumph, something we need to be seeing more of in the media and in life these days. Also? The movie begins on the first night of the Festival of Lights, when Fievel is given his signature blue hat as a gift from his father.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Holocaust films don’t exactly fit the joyous mood of Hanukkah, but this movie, about a German boy and a Jewish boy who become friends through the barbed fences of a concentration camp, will teach the little ones that it’s OK to be friends with someone who’s just a little bit different than they are—and to have compassion for those who are less fortunate too.
If there was ever a time to rewatch Yentl it’s now. The film revolves around the title character — none other than Barbra Streisand herself — who disguises herself as a boy so she can enroll in a Yeshiva to learn Talmud. Considering that Americans just elected 100 women to Congress — including these Jewish moms — Yentl was basically the OG gal who shattered glass ceilings and proved that women can do everything their male counterparts can do.
Full Court Miracle
This 2003 made-for-TV Disney Channel Original Movie follows the boys basketball team at a Yeshiva high school in Philadelphia, who enlist their own Judah Maccabee — or, um, injured college basketball star — to coach their struggling team to the tournament. It’s based on a true story and shows the parallels between the miracle of Hanukkah and the game of basketball, something any jaded tween boy would likely appreciate.
The Jazz Singer
If you want to take it way back, The Jazz Singer is a good option. All three iterations — released in 1927, the 1950s and 1980 — are about a young man who wants to become a mainstream singer, defying his religious cantor father’s wishes and his observant upbringing in the process. I’d recommend the ‘80s version, which stars real-life Jewish singer Neil Diamond as the lead.
Wet Hot American Summer
Disclaimer: This movie (and the subsequent Netflix prequel) is for big kids only, as there are lots of sexual references throughout. But if you’re OK with that, then watch this David Wain film about a group of counselors on the last day of summer at a 1980s Jewish summer camp. There are no outright Hanukkah references (it’s summer camp, after all), but there are numerous references to shul and rabbis, characters with wacky Jewish monikers like Ronald von Kleinenstein, and Hebrew phrases courtesy of Israeli staff member Yaron to keep the whole (mature) fam entertained.