Finally an American television show had the guts to be realistic about the Jewish experience in America. This happened on the most recently aired episode of the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs.”
Last Wednesday night it dealt with the problem that American Jews face every year at Christmas time. They want to fit in and be just like all their neighbors, but Christmas is no Thanksgiving or 4th of July. If you have to ask me why then stop reading now and find a rabbi.
Only in America has Hanukah become such an important holiday and only because it always comes out around Christmas time. And this among the non-orthodox, mainly families whose children attend public schools with Christian kids. Jews give their kids presents because they are competing with the custom of giving kids Christmas presents. Until the 20th Century there was no such Hanukah custom. While one can certainly argue that all of the Jewish holidays are equally holy to one another, clearly if you had to make a list pretty much all of the rest would rate above Hanukah and that is the honest truth.
Even if Christmas has been commercialized and even secularized in modern America, there is no denying that it is a Christian religious holiday. While Easter usually comes out near Pesach time, it is not so easy to pretend that it is not a purely Christian holiday and it is not a national holiday. Nor does it come with the now more than month long fanfare and public celebrations that go along with Christmas.
“The Goldbergs” is basically a remake of the Wonder Years. You know that cute comedy from the 1980s where the grown man voiced by Daniel Stern narrates all about his youth in suburban America in the 1960s. The new show is about a kid growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980s. His experiences are narrated by the comic/actor Patton Oswalt who never actually appears on camera. You might remember him from “The King of Queens” back in the 90s.
Created and produced by Adam F. Goldberg, the sitcom is ostensibly based on his childhood experiences and the main character shares his name. Each episode ends with a video clip made by the young budding filmmaker on a camcorder of the actual events that once took place on which the episode was based. While the family has such an obvious Jewish name, it has never before been depicted as being Jewish. They were not even stereotypically Jewish with the nagging mother or crazy relatives we have seen so many times in the past on shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”
Let’s face it: The reason why we get such skewed depictions of the Jewish experience in America on television and in film is because the people who write the scripts tend to be secular Jews and/or former Hebrew School kids with an axe to grind about their negative childhood experiences. This was certainly the case with the Coen Brothers’ movie “A Serious Man” and basically every Woody Allen film with a Jewish reference of any kind.
It took until the show’s 57th episode for it to even acknowledge that the family is in fact Jewish, but better late than never. The episode does a great job of depicting how Jewish families in America feel that they must compete with Christmas. It opens with the two brothers (they also have an older sister) watching one of the greatest Christmas films of all time “A Christmas Story.” You know the movie! It’s the one where the kid wanted a BB gun for Christmas but everyone just tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” I also grew up in the 80s and for me the greatest Christmas movie will always be “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Then there were of course all of the Christmas specials on television like “Frosty the Snowman” and The Peanuts Christmas where Charlie Brown got that really sad looking small tree and everyone got angry at him. And let’s not forget all of those great Christmas episodes on sitcoms like “Happy Days” where Fonzie had nowhere to go for the holiday and so the Cunninghams hosted him for the first time and “The Odd Couple” where they spoofed stories like “A Christmas Carol.”
Well this episode of “The Goldbergs” opens with the mother reminding the kids that it’s Hanukah. They are not too thrilled and the grumpy dad played brilliantly by Jeff Garlin (yes he’s Jewish) says, “Again, didn’t we just do that?” The narrator then explains to the viewer that while there may be 8 days of Hanukah, instead of only one day of Christmas, as the holiday progresses the presents given out get cheaper and worse.
More importantly, the adult Adam remembers how much more joyous his Christian neighbors the Kremps were and how much livelier their Christmas celebrations were than his family’s Hanukah ones.
So the Goldbergs’ mom decides to do something about it. What was her great solution to the problem? I’m glad that you asked. She decided to put a “Hanukah Bush” in their living room. That’s right! Beverly Goldberg adopted Chrismukkah, or whatever you want to call it. Actually she called it Super Hanukah, a hybrid of the two holidays where they adopted Christmas traditions and simply renamed them. So instead of egg nog they had buttery booze milk, instead of red and white candy canes they had blue and white holiday “Js” and so on.
I remember arguing many a time over the years with secular and Conservative Jews about this very issue. I would sit in shock at hearing people say things like, “what’s wrong with having a Hanukah Bush? What’s wrong with wearing silly blue and gold holiday winter sweaters?”
Again, if you have to ask me “yah what’s wrong with that?” talk to a rabbi.
What next, Passover eggs or Yom Kippur crucifixes?
It was not until the family’s curmudgeonly but lovable maternal grandfather Albert played beautifully by George Segal showed up that the mother was brought back to reality. Beverly tries to explain to her father that she was just trying to spice up their traditions to which he retorts, “Trading in your family’s tradition is not being good at family, I mean what’s next Santa Clause?” Of course Jeff Garlin then walks in in a Santa suit which he wore as a favor to the neighbors.
Then the neighbor’s mom comes in and expresses surprise at seeing how much Hanukah is like Christmas when she sees the Hanukah bush. Beverly’s dad then sarcastically tells her to try and explain what the bush has to do with Hanukah to the woman and Mrs. Goldberg says something about how after the miracle of the oil lasting for 8 days in the Temple they then found a bush in the Temple’s basement.
George Segal then tells her, “You forgot the part where Aqua Man swam to Egypt and parted the red sea.” And finally on Christmas Day itself they all go out to eat Chinese food as all good American Jews do that day of the year.
This was certainly a lot smarter, better and more realistic than that awful Hanukah episode of “Friends” where Ross suddenly decided that his 10 year old son — whose mother is not Jewish — needed some Jewish heritage and so he rushed to find some way of teaching him about Hanukkah. In the end Ross could only find an armadillo costume which he wore for some reason. Not funny, not witty, nonsensical and borderline offensive.
The show had no other Jewish religious references, neither before nor after that episode. Its three Jewish characters, Ross, Monica and Rachel, were only ever stereotypical Jews. Not a single Passover Seder nor Bar-Mitzvah was celebrated in its 10 year run.
So Kudos to “The Goldbergs” and ABC for giving us a genuine portrait of Jewish America for a change.
On a personal note, I have now lived in Israel for more than 20 years. As such, I did not in any way felt threatened by Christmas the few times that I was back in New York during that time of year.
About ten years ago I was riding with my friend in his car when one of my two favorite Christmas songs came on the radio – Melissa Etheridge’s cover of John Lennon’s Christmas song. My other favorite is Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town.”
My friend rushed to change the station, disgusted by everything Christmas. To his shock I asked him to let the song play. I explained to him that as someone who lives in Israel I do not need to be defensive about being in New York around Christmas time. It’s like being a tourist in any country celebrating a local religious holiday.
Anyway if you have never had a chance to see “The Goldbergs,” you should. It’s not a laugh riot like “Cheers” or “Seinfeld” at their best, but it’s sweet and good for at least one big laugh per show.
And a merry — uhm I mean happy — end of Hanukkah to all, God bless us all — everyone.