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The Margin: Why Hanukkah movies and TV shows are becoming more popular

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Could Hanukkah television shows be the new stars of the holiday season?

Of course, it may sound like a ridiculous idea to suggest. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Christmas programs that find their way onto our screens each season, from classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to newer entries. The Hallmark Channel alone has more than 30 new films as part of its “Countdown to Christmas” and “Miracles of Christmas” events this year.

But there’s also a growing canon of programming tied to Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights that falls close to or during Christmas, depending on the year. This season, Hallmark has its own entry, “Hanukkah on Rye,” a holiday rom-com set in the world of Jewish delis. In fact, it’s one in a series of Hannukah films the network has released in recent years, a list that includes “Double Holiday” (2019); “Holiday Date” (2019); “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” (2020); and “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah” (2021).

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has also gotten in on the Hanukkah act this year, airing “Menorah in the Middle,” another food-themed rom-com — this one set in a Jewish bakery. (The Hanukkah menorah — or hanukkiah — is a key symbol of the holiday.)

And that’s to say nothing of the many Hanukkah programs that are becoming classics in their own right: In a recent story, The Forward, a Jewish publication, cited more than a dozen examples, from “A Rugrats Chanukah” (1996) to a Hanukkah-themed episode of the popular sitcom “Friends” (2000).

Oh, and let’s not forget Adam Sandler and the various versions of his “Hanukkah Song” — not a “program” per se, but a pop-culture zeitgeist that celebrates numerous Jewish stars. (“David Lee Roth lights the menorah…”).

Sandler said he wrote the tune so that Jewish children didn’t feel left out on the holiday. And indeed, there was a time — say, a generation ago — when there was little to no concept of Hanukkah entertainment, save for a couple of kiddie songs.

“When I was growing up in the 1980s, I just understood that growing up Jewish in America meant being underrepresented in pop culture in general, but especially this time of year,” said Esther Kustanowitz, co-host of an award-winning Jewish-centric pop-culture podcast called The Bagel Report.

So, what changed? Kustanowitz points to one key factor: the popularity of Jewish-themed content in general. If anything, Hanukkah is just an extension of the trend. Consider the popularity of a Jewish-themed series like Amazon
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Prime’s Emmy Award-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Or the Jewish characters or storylines in other recent hit series, from “Broad City” to “Orange Is the New Black.”

It speaks to a broader idea — namely, the growing multicultural sensibility of America, experts note. It’s not just about Hanukkah — it’s also about the holidays of other faiths, from Ramadan (a key event on the Islamic calendar) to Diwali (a holiday observed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists), all of which are receiving increased recognition in this country.

The idea that “everyone celebrates Christmas is finally ebbing away, and so are the TV execs who believe that,” said Eric Silver, creative head at Multitude Productions, a podcast producer.

You also can’t ignore how the media landscape has changed, argues Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. In the days when the TV world was dominated by three major networks, programs about faiths and cultures outside the mainstream had little chance of finding their place at the table. But with the advent of cable and then streaming programming, “there’s so much more real estate…there are so many more tables,” he said.

Thompson makes another point: At this stage, the Christmas story and the well-known fictional Christmas characters, such as Santa, Rudolph and Scrooge, are so entrenched that audiences may be looking for something new and different. That leaves more room for stories about another holiday.

Hanukkah is “absolutely untrounced territory,” Thompson said.

It’s a point seconded by media consultant Jess Ponce III, who notes that the greater representation of Hanukkah is coming in spite of the fact that there’s been a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents and speech. But ultimately, TV audiences are “craving new stories,” Ponce said. And networks — broadcast, cable and streaming — must heed to that demand if they are to prosper.

“Greater representation in programming can lead to greater revenue,” Ponce concluded.

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