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Festival of Lights... camera... action! Hanukkah on the big screen

As the Jewish community of the Sonoma Valley and beyond prepare to mark Hanukkah with family gathering and public celebrations – including the annual Menorah lighting on Saturday, Dec. 24 at 4:30 p.m. at Congregation Shir Shalom – a question has arisen among local movie lovers.

Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Though movie watching is hardly a formal holiday tradition, many families do gather together to watch their favorite winter-themed films over the days that include Christmas, Winter Solstice, and the Festival of Lights. With very few exceptions, such films – especially those broadcast around the clock on cable television – are focused on or around Christmas. These range from classics like “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the various adventures of Santa Claus (battling bad vibes and bad weather from the North Pole to the Planet Mars) to less-uplifting but increasingly popular choices such as “Gremlins,” “Die Hard,” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” all taking place on Christmas Eve, with blood, monsters and mayhem served up alongside the tinsel and eggnog.

It’s surprising, given the number of prominent Jewish filmmakers at work in the industry that so few films exist that focus on or take place during Hanukkah, or mention it and other Jewish holidays and observances all. Not that Hanukkah goes completely unrecognized in the canon of classic films. A Facebook request for suggestions of favorite Hanukkah-themed movies or television shows, surprisingly resulted in a list made up of largely of animated films.

Among these is Adam Sandler’s gleefully scatological 2002 comedy “Eight Crazy Nights,” and the Steven Spielberg produced 1986 musical “An American Tail” – which opens with mice engaged in a joyous Hanukkah celebration in Russia, a party interrupted by an attack from Cossack cats. Another oft-mentioned favorite is the 1996 television special “A Rugrats Chanukah,” which features the characters acting out the story of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, and describes the miracle of the lamps remaining lit for eight days on only a single day’s sacred oil.

Hanukkah is prominently featured in the plot of the 2002 satirical comedy, “The Hebrew Hammer,” in which a Jewish superhero named Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) battles the evil son of Santa Claus, who has waged war on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Though popular among younger audiences, the film’s outrageous parodies of stereotypes is controversial, and was the focus of a suit by the Anti-Defamation League, which ultimately lost its case.

Hanukkah is celebrated by the barely blended Focker-Byrnes family in the 2004 sequel “Meet the Fockers,” and has a more prominent spate of appearances on television, where the holiday has been played for laughs and pathos in such shows as “The O.C. (2003’s “The Best Chrismukkah Ever”), Disney’s “Even Stevens” (“Heck of a Hanukkah,” 2000), and “Friends,” in a highly-quoted 2000 episode where Ross dresses as an armadillo to explain the Festival of Lights to his son.

Finally, a number of Facebook recommendations come for a brief pop-culture allusion to Hanukkah in the Grammy-winning 2008 “A Colbert Christmas: The Best Gift Ever!” It’s a duet between Colbert and Jon Stewart, who earnestly sings, ”We have latkes, potato pancakes. And dreidels, wooden tops. We have candles. And when we light them, Oh! The fun it never stops.”

Of course, the definition of “Hanukkah movie” is clearly open to as wide an interpretation as any other genre. In a short essay by Terry Schwartz posted last year on the website of the Independent Film Channel, a list of suggested “Hanukkah movies” includes, along with many of the aforementioned, the science-fiction flick, “Independence Day.”

Writes Schwartz, “There’s no one we’d like to celebrate Hanukkah with during an alien invasion more than David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch). So what if “Independence Day” took place over the Fourth of July? Julius managed to get in some of the most hilarious Jewish digs we’ve ever heard over the course of this movie, and to that we toast him with our glass of Manischewitz and include him on this list.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.