In light of a seemingly never-ending stream of Christmas-oriented media, Sarah Kremen-Hicks asks what is enough when it comes to representing Judaism onscreen in this earnest, evocative double re-view of two narratives about the Chosen People: The Prince of Egypt and The Hebrew Hammer.
Goyim really seem to love their holiday movies, and, damn, are there a lot of them.
I knew this growing up, when Sunday afternoon TV in December would become a nonstop parade of animated Rudolph teaching animated Frosty to build a snow cave under the watchful eye of an abominable animated snowman, all of whom were voiced by Yeardley Smith on a helium bender.
I know this because my sister-in-law once insisted that we all settle in to watch Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a movie which appears to have been made when someone found a pile of moth-eaten Muppets on a trash heap in the pouring rain. It was tradition.
Most recently, I know this because the internet is abuzz about Hallmark Christmas specials, which are movies in which a woman from a large east coast city leaves her inattentive east coast city boyfriend for the ruggedly handsome blue-collar guy from a little town in flyover country who shows her the true meaning of Christmas. (This is not a euphemism in these movies, although I suspect there are others, with punnier titles, in which it is.)
It never occurred to me as a child, flipping through channels and coming up all misfit elves, to wonder why there weren’t any movies for me. Maybe it was because I always knew – and was eternally explaining – that Chanukkah is not, in fact, “Jewish Christmas.” We don’t need parallel structures. (I’m looking at you, Bed Bath and Beyond, with your ridiculous display of blue stockings.)
And yet. Wouldn’t it be great to have them, all the same? Ritualized viewing is practically made for us. We eat meals so heavily scripted that the stage directions literally order us to tell this same story every year – a holiday movie-fest is basically in our DNA. Settle in and watch a thing you’ve seen at the same time every year? Yes, please.
I can find myself in other movies – you get a lot of practice in recognizing your reflection around the edges of pop culture when you aren’t a WASP. Look, there I am in Peter Jackson’s dwarves! But I remember the giddy pleasure of watching women bust ghosts, when I didn’t have to stretch to imagine myself, a woman, as the protagonist. I want that feeling for my Jewish self. For my Jewish kid.
MOT, Prince of Egypt (1998) and The Hebrew Hammer (2003) are our holiday movies. Twice a year, during Pesach and Chanukkah, we can sit (or recline) on the sofa with a plate of rugelach and see ourselves on TV without having to write new Midrash to justify that reading. For better and worse, it’s unapologetically us.
The Prince of Egypt
I’m one minute and thirty-eight seconds into The Prince of Egypt, and I’m crying. It’s practically Pavlovian – somewhere between “Elohim, God on high, can you hear your people cry” and “My son, I have nothing I can give but this chance that you may live,” I burst into tears. Which end of that range depends on whether my self-concept that day is tipped more toward “Jew” or “mom.” If my kid were the betting type, I imagine there’d be money changing hands over the exact moment – as it is, he’s learned to get me a box of tissues before I hit play.
(I’m also craving salt; we usually make matzo pizza to eat while we watch this. Pavlov again.)
This time the crying starts early – how could it not, two months after the massacre in Squirrel Hill, in a year when both the scheissenfuhrer and Alice Walker are gleefully paraphrasing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? And yet, how can I not also be a mama bear, when my kid’s school has seen swastikas drawn on the walls and threatening letters delivered to Jewish faculty? There’s a lot of crying to be done this year. Am I crying for my tribe, or for my child?
Both, says Prince of Egypt.
Billing itself as the story of Exodus, the movie doesn’t follow the classic introductory pattern for musicals – the “I want” song, usually given to the main character in the first scene, is here broken into two parts. Moses sings “All I Ever Wanted,” but this isn’t an expression of desire for something missing in his life; rather, it’s an attempt to reassure himself that the things he already has are properly his in the face of the revelation that he is the child of a Hebrew slave. It’s a reversal of the typical form: Rather than looking to the future for completion, this song reaches into the past and attempts to hold onto it.
The more traditional “I want” song can be found in the first scene, when the Hebrew slaves sing “Deliver Us.” This song clearly articulates a want – freedom – but stands in opposition to the main character – Moses wants for nothing here. It’s only upon his return to Egypt that he takes on the “I want” of his people. “Let my people go,” in this version, is not Heston’s grandstanding, but spoken with the conflicted heart of a man facing down his brother. This is the Haggadah’s charge that, amid our celebration, we remember the suffering of the Egyptians, who are also God’s children.
There is a seder, an order, to watching this movie.
“Moses,” says the burning bush.
“Here I am,” he replies.
“Hineini,” I say to the kid whose Hebrew is better than mine.
He rolls his eyes. “I know, mom.” Apparently, I say that every time.
Not everything is the same each year, however; scenes I’ve watched twenty times take on new meanings. Babies are ripped from their mothers’ arms, and I see a migrant caravan leaving Egypt. I wonder whether the same people who see the march to the Red Sea as one of victory – can’t make Christians without Jews! – are out there right now, trying to crowdfund a wall. I cry some more.
Prince of Egypt shows us the intimate story within the epic, too – the personal within the political. It tries to tackle (though not entirely successfully) what I consider the most important question of Pesach (no, not “why is this night different than all other nights?”): Why does HaShem harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why guarantee suffering? In doing so, it humanizes its outsized characters, giving us the story of two men raised as brothers, whose love for each other can’t overcome their divergent beliefs and values. Rameses tells Moses “I am the morning and the evening star. It shall be as I say. [I] will have it known that he is our brother, and a prince of Egypt.” He is a classic older sibling, who can only see his brother as his own lesser reflection. Maybe I’m overidentifying with the Sibling Issues here, but that’s pretty much right in the feels.
Ultimately, this is a story that valorizes chosen family, but does so with clear eyes. Moses’ family of origin (and, yes, I know the terminology is a problem here), complicated though they may be, are not all monsters. In the queen’s reprise of “All I Ever Wanted,” we see a teenager in crisis, clinging to his mother, and if the advice she gives him is problematic – “Now you know the truth, love, so forget, and be content” – it’s at least delivered with an embrace that feels honest.
When Moses looks back across the Red Sea to his brother to say, “Goodbye, Rameses,” it’s clear that, even when he has chosen his people, he can’t entirely leave the past behind. Even when we move beyond our toxic family of origin, the marks they make never entirely leave us. Mitzrayim shapes us as we grow around and beyond it.
Family is complicated. Am Yisrael is complicated. So many things are complicated. Freud said that we as a people murdered our father, but isn’t this femme Moses, who midwifes lambs and wears a bridal gown, also Moshe imenu (hot daddy beard notwithstanding)? This is the story of our complicated, maddening, contradictory people. The kid summed it up from halfway up the stairs: “That movie always makes me both really sad and really happy. It’s really difficult.”
The movie opens with a title card that carefully avoids specifics, and calls the story “a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide,” but I know. I know when Yocheved sings to Moshe in Ivrit and it isn’t subtitled. I know when the children dance through the crowd singing Mi Chamocha. I know when Miriam looks like a girl from my shul, and has hair like mine. This movie? This one is just for us.
Dayenu. If they had told our story with the songs of our people, it would have been enough.
Dayenu. If they had shown us the epic and the personal together, it would have been enough.
Dayenu. If they had made us complex heroes, it would have been enough.
The Hebrew Hammer
Where Prince of Egypt shows us ourselves in a grand religious history, The Hebrew Hammer, our Chanukkah offering, is a love letter to Ashkenazi culture through the lens of blaxploitation films. Prince may not have known that it was a holiday movie in the making, but this one is hyperaware of its context. It knows that Christmas movies are omnipresent, and it sets out to make its own space in the crowded landscape of December. The spikes on its elbows help – it’s not afraid to puncture egos and vaunted traditions along the way. The Hebrew Hammer, a “certified, circumcised dick,” goes up against an evil Santa Claus who wants to wipe out Chanukkah, armed with a boatload of mommy issues and neuroses wrapped up in Yiddish and a huge lack of boundaries.
Instead of tears, this one is all laughter. I’ve watched it every year since the kid was born, and it still has me howling, even though I can recite most of it word-for-word. When the omnipresence of Christmas is getting you down, MOT, and you’re too tired to have yet another conversation about why trees covered in tinsel actually aren’t secular, no really, this is your pick-me-up. This is your escape into a world where all the cultural references are yours. Jonathan Kesselman, you had me at the first “sheket bevakasha.” (“Hey!”)
Not everything is April-fresh at fifteen years old; comedy always seems to have a shorter shelf life than other genres. The “he’s not a straight Santa” bit hasn’t aged well (I’m not convinced it youthed well, to be honest), although the kid tried so hard to make it a more multilayered joke than it actually was, so that he could partially redeem it. (I let him have that one, despite his thoroughly unconvincing argument. It can’t always be harsh truths.)
For the most part, though, it still works – better, I’d argue, than its comedy contemporaries. Love, Actually and the third installments of the Scary Movie and American Pie franchises don’t get much of a smile from me these days (although it would be irresponsible not to point out that the latter two didn’t to begin with, either). But I’m pretty sure that the day I don’t find the dirty talk scene funny, it will be because I’m dead. (“You want me to talk dirty to you? You want I should talk dirty to you? I wanna have lots of children by you. I wanna get a stable, good-paying job. I want to move to Long Island, somewhere fancy, but not fancy schmancy.”)
It works because, once again, this is ours. The Yinglish, the call-outs to summer camp, the constant refrain that Chanukkah is really just NBD (“Channukah shmanukkah! It isn’t even a high holiday”), the poking your head back in after leaving to correct goyish pronunciation of gutturals one more time – these come together to form a landscape that’s perfectly familiar. All of them allow the movie to hide in plain sight: it may be funny to the rest of you, but to us – well, we wouldn’t even know where to start explaining all the jokes.
Moreover, this is a movie in which actual Jews play the Jews. Adam Goldberg, who looks like the guys I dated in my early 20s, stars as the Hebrew Hammer, a character who kvetches like me. Peter Coyote’s Chief Blumenbergensteinenthal, with an accent straight out of the shtetl, eats bagels and shmear like my grandfather used to (messily, and fairly off-putting). Half of the extras in the JJL meeting remind me of my uncle Irwin. If you don’t get why this is a big deal, check out everyone who has ever played a Jew on NCIS, just for starters. Here’s a movie not only for us, but by us.
Time was I’d make a joke here about controlling the media, but now that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are trotted out on Twitter by elected officials and used as fodder for gun massacres – well, it just doesn’t seem that funny anymore. And that brings us to my real worry about this movie, hiding under the laughter. In a world where Javanka and Stephen-Miller-that-fucking-shanda have national – even international – sway, should we really be airing our dirty laundry for the goyim to see? What is a movie that trades in the hilarity of what-they-say-about-us as well as what-we-say-about-us doing out in the world these days?
A few months ago, most of left-leaning Jewbook shut down over accusations – valid accusations – of racism within the community. The shake-up spawned new groups dedicated to amplifying the voices of Jews of color, and among other things, bringing more attention to non-Ashkenazi traditions and culture. The same conversations are happening outside the computer as well. In light of that, I wonder about this movie. It’s funny to me because it universalizes the Ashkenazi experience, but when I say it’s us, is it really? All of us? Where are the Sephardic and Mizrahi comedies that shuffle me just to the edge of outsider? And how should I feel about a movie that, in light of today’s uncomfortable conversations, presents the white, neurotic Yid as face of Judaism to the outside world? Fifteen years on, my laughter is still there, but it’s a little more reflective than it used to be.
Once again, I’ll let the kid have the (nearly) final word: “I think it’s okay if it’s an in-joke, but not if it’s someone from outside the community saying it.” I’m not sure he realizes he’s paraphrasing one of the more cringe-worthy scenes, where Mo, the leader of the Kwaanza Liberation Front, tells the white accountant, “Well, it’s okay when we says it.” It’s a Jew’s take on black-Jewish solidarity, and one that doesn’t account for the existence of black Jews.
“You know those groups aren’t mutually exclusive, right?” I ask the kid, gesturing to the representatives of the KLF and the JJL on screen.
He rolls his eyes again. “I know, mom.”
For now, that’s enough, I think.