“See, I never grew up watching the show, so I probably have a completely different view on it,” Dania said.
“That’s fair,” Gwen shrugged. “Rugrats was slightly before my time, so I didn’t watch it that often. But this episode played every year, so I saw it a lot.”
“Sure,” Dania said. “I just don’t think I could handle an entire series with those voices at the center.”
“What, the babies?”
Dania’s voice curled and squirmed as she attempted to replicate the infantile warbling that marked every character’s voice.
“You get used to it,” Eleanor said. “When you watch more episodes.”
“But you liked the special all right?” Gwen asked.
“Oh, sure,” Dania said. She unwrapped another chocolate coin. “It’s clever, but easy enough for kids to understand. Gelt, anyone?”
“It really took a lot of risks, and it doesn’t let on about them,” Gwen praised. “Setting aside the rarity of creating a legitimate Chanukah special –– one that doesn’t focus on the holiday as ‘not Christmas,’ but on its own terms –– that’s commendable even before you start counting the tiny jokes.”
“‘I broke a Shin because of you!” Eleanor quoted. “I caught that.”
“I’m sure kids don’t,” Gwen said. “Hazel’s never pointed it out.”
“What does she think?” Dania asked. “As the actual expected audience.”
“That’s the proof,” Gwen said “This episode is basically why she knows the story of Chanukah. Not in detail, but enough of the major points to recount it later. She understands the meaning of Chanukah.”
“The Meanie of Chanukah?” Eleanor quoted, with mock fear.
“Ugh, you know I’m a sucker for wordplay,” Dania grinned. She eyed another piece of gelt, but decided against it.
“That’s probably my favorite thing about Rugrats as a show,” Eleanor added. “The joke usually hinges on a misunderstanding the babies have about the real world. But the emotional climax, after they wander their way into a solution, always ends with them actually understanding whatever they misunderstood before. They search for the Meanie of Chanukah, and discover the meaning.”
“The plot steps out of the way quite early in the episode’s structure,” Gwen agreed. “In a 21-minute story, the denouement, when the emotional art gets resolved, takes four minutes. Without the plot to take up focus anymore, the episode dives head-first into the Chanukah story.”
“Well, the second half of it,” Eleanor clarified. “And it kicks off with the first half, too, when there’s not even a plot introduced yet.”
“I definitely imagine,” Dania said, “that somewhere in the writer’s room, someone got a whole bunch of high-fives for coming up with the pop-up book Torah.”
“It’s such a perfect Rugrats joke: the world seen through the lens of a child,” Eleanor said.
“My worry would be simplicity,” Dania said. “It’s cute and everything, but I’m sure there’s more to Chanukah than the story it presents. The Romans were not just ‘chased out of Jerusalem,’ it was a war.”
“Yeah, but the kids don’t know that,” Eleanor said. “They don’t need the details.”
“For all the show simplifies, it never puts in anything untrue,” Gwen said. “It never adds comedy at the expense of culture. It certainly never makes comedy from the culture.”
“It feels respectful,” Dania said. “In a way that perhaps was mandated?”
“I mean, the head of Nickelodeon at the time was Jewish, and he signed off,” Eleanor pointed out.
Dania hesitated. “You just know the religion of a Nickelodeon executive in the mid-1990s?”
“Well, it was a whole thing,” Eleanor explained. “Gwen told me.”
“The Anti-Defamation League isn’t the biggest fan of Rugrats,” Gwen said. “They denounced the episode over the way that the two Jewish grandparents are drawn, comparing the designs to Nazi propaganda.”
“Yikes,” Dania grimaced. “That’s heavy.”
“Nothing ever came of it,” Gwen continued. “But the grandparents did eventually stop showing up.”
“If you look up the images they’re talking about, you can sort of see where they’re coming from,” Eleanor said. “Like, in the broadest possible sense.”
“It’s an entirely different context,” Gwen pushed. “To get bogged down on the visuals when the content is so clearly supportive of, and educational about, Jewish culture, it feels like an attempt to stir controversy.”
“Isn’t that, like, kind of the point anyway?” Eleanor suggested. “Literally, the episode ends with the Chanukah pageant falling apart and revealing just the elders teaching a younger generation about their culture. It’s the ultimate “focus on what matters” message.”
Gwen nodded. “Exactly.”
“Did you learn about Chanukah as a kid?” Dania asked. “Beyond the episode.”
“I learned the basics,” Gwen said. “My parents, I believe, attempted to paint it as equal to Christmas, as opposed to ‘the other one.’ Still, culture did its job.”
“Did you?” Eleanor asked Dania.
“No, not really,” Dania said. “About as much as this episode said. I never really understood how the oil burned for eight days.”
“It was a miracle.”
“Okay, yes, but like…” Dania implied. “Like how it happened.”
“A miracle,” Eleanor pressed.
“I was a science kid, I didn’t get miracles,” Dania said.
“You learned about Chanukah, Eleanor?” asked Gwen.
“A few years of my life.”
“Really?” Dania asked.
“Remind me, is your family Jewish?” Gwen hazarded.
But Eleanor shook her head. “No, nothing like that. It was one of the places we lived when I was…nine, ten? Around then. There was this synagogue fair for Chanukah –– basically the one in the special. You get latkes, and storytelling, and a whole bunch of klezmer music. So much clarinet.”
Gwen and Dania laughed.
“I don’t really know why my dad took me,” Eleanor said. “He wasn’t Jewish. I guess it’s as good a place as any to bring a kid. A good sense of community there. So, yeah, I guess I know a lot about the Chanukah traditions.”
“You know the story of Judah and the Maccabees?”
“Oh, backwards and forwards,” Eleanor chimed. “The ‘Maccababies’ line in the special is perfect, by the way. Didn’t mention that.”
Gwen smiled. “I’m a big fan of ‘we’ll see you at the church!'”
“It’s a synagogue!,” Eleanor and Gwen said together.
“I absolutely made the same mistake. House of worship, keep it general.”
“I was surprised when –– sorry, are we still discussing the Rugrats special?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Eleanor said, sitting back down. “Sorry, got sidetracked with my past.”
“No, it’s beautiful,” Gwen said. “I didn’t know.”
“I thought it was really great of them to go there with the Boris/Schlomo fight,” Dania said, “when Boris talks about how he hasn’t focused on the family, and Schlomo’s response is just flat out ‘we could not have children.‘”
“Yes!” Gwen agreed. “I remember as a kid, I absolutely did not understand that. Yet, the way it’s shot, the expression on Boris’ face…you understand the importance of it.”
“You understand the importance of all of Chanukah,” Eleanor said. “Tommy has that line about ‘my uncle puts a hat on and says funny words,’ and it’s played as misunderstanding, sure. But a misunderstanding that recognizes that whatever is happening, it’s important.”
“It’s not a super funny episode,” Dania said. “Is Rugrats usually pretty funny?”
“This is certainly toned-down Rugrats,” said Gwen.
“I get that sense,” Dania nodded. “Everything with Angelica doesn’t really need to be here. It’s just a token acknowledgement of Christmas also happening.”
“Well, it’s also the admission that Christmas is more widespread,” Eleanor argued. “Part of the emotional climax is Angelica stopping to listen to a more subtle tale of Chanukah. Honestly, it doesn’t say much about Christmas, as far as comparing it. All it does is present Christmas as “the other holiday,” as far as conflict is concerned. A way to get Angelica into the nursery with the others.”
“Seeing Christmas portrayed as other to Chanukah is certainly a nice change of pace,” Gwen smirked.
“Also, going back, small sidenote,” Eleanor said. “The part where Angelica things the Torah box is a television set…I don’t think I did that exactly, but I had that talk that the Rabbi attempts to give her, about the significance of it, and it went pretty much exactly as you’d expect.”
“You were a child,” Gwen said. “It’s hard to focus.”
“Did you do the gibberish?” Dania asked. “Not gibberish, obviously. But the prayer. Sorry, it’s called gibberish in the special. They’re babies!”
“It’s fine, Dania,” Eleanor said. “Yes, everyone sang it as they lit the oil at sundown.”
Gwen and Dania said nothing, but both silently reformed a small piece of Eleanor in their own minds. Silence passed, as Eleanor’s eyes seemed to drift away and refocus in the wide hall of the synagogue, recollecting the warmth of the room, the gentle hum of the crowd, the flicker of a match.
“Do you still know it?” Dania finally asked.
“The prayer?” Eleanor said. “Yes. Barukh ata Adonai El––”
“Hold on, I know we have eight candles around here somewhere,” Dania said, standing to search the apartment.
“I have two in my room!” Gwen dashed away.
As they searched, Eleanor ran over the words again in her head. It had been a while since she’d needed to say them out loud. But they’d stuck.
Ten minutes later –– just before the sun dipped below the skyline –– the three had assembled an octet of lamps: two Yankee candles, three tea candles, a spare birthday candle, a stick of sealing wax, and an electric jack-o-lantern light.
“‘Twill serve,” Gwen mused.
Eleanor struck the match, and lit the seven candles that she could. As the room illuminated, she recited:
“Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah. Blessed art Thou, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us and commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.”
Eleanor halted, just a moment.
“Oh, the second one,” she grumbled. “I always forget the second one.”
“I know the English,” she said. “Blessed art Thou, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our people, in those days, at this time.”
The candles remained still in the dark.
“Yeah, they only say the first one in the Rugrats special,” Gwen added.
Happy Chanukah! 🕎
Image Source: SYFY Wire