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The Least-Requested Hanukkah Specials Ever

Jolson, Malamud, Golda, and more!

Marc Tracy
December 23, 2011
(Wikipeida/Hanna-Barbera/Ye Olde Tablet Photoshoppe)
(Wikipeida/Hanna-Barbera/Ye Olde Tablet Photoshoppe)

In severe debt to John Scalzi’s list of the “10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time,” we present the Five Least-Requested Hanukkah Specials of All Time.

The Dirge Singer (1922)
This radio special starring Al Jolson was based on the singer’s life. His character betrays his traditional Jewish family to sing in blackface (rendered on radio by his, er, different way of talking, about which the less said, the better). Yet emotional catharsis is achieved by the end, when he returns to sing “Ma’oz Tzur” on the first night of Hanukkah. Listeners complained that “Rock of Ages” lacked the necessary foundation on which to carry the climax of such an ostensibly moving story. They also expressed frustration at not being able to see Jolson transform to blackface and back. RCA bigwig David Sarnoff is said to have responded, “Well what would those [unprintable] suggest we do—invent some way that they could see Jolson and hear him at the same time?”

The Magical Maccabees (1955)
Sitting by a slightly threatening-looking fire, a gigantic Old Country menorah partially obscuring the camera’s view, Bernard Malamud sat for two hours and sternly lectured viewers about the importance of not giving in to modern-day Hellenization, much as Mattathias (whom Malamud insisted on calling Matityahu in part to prove his point) fought the oppressors rather than allowed himself to become assimilated. “Enlivening” the jeremiad were Malamud’s periodic stories about shtetl folk falling in love and performing magical acts, which all had the twist that these modest peasants actually lived in major United States cities. After the special aired, CBS’s Newark affiliate received an angry phone call from a young watcher who demanded why there were no Jewish writers who showed the Jewish community in America as it really was.

The Banality of Hanukkah (1962)
Taped during The New Yorker’s annual Christmas party from their midtown offices, this NBC special featured Hannah Arendt, at her desk, calmly explaining that Hanukkah is an ordinary holiday and the Maccabees were just ordinary people who happened, together, to commit an extraordinary deed (she also noted that not all the Syrians were evil, much as certain Nazi philosophers, for example Martin Heidegger, were good people). Arendt was frequently interrupted by the partiers outside her office: A clearly inebriated Joseph Mitchell noiselessly walked in, vomited on Arendt’s desk, and walked out; Lillian Ross brought in an unidentified man and proceeded to “neck” with him for several minutes before noticing the camera and embarrassingly fleeing. Some historians have suggested Arendt’s experience producing this special led her to be Tom Wolfe’s source for his articles about the magazine a few years later. Arguments over whether this special ought to be deliberately blocked from historical consciousness, so that nobody is ever subjected to it again, or specifically replayed every year, as a reminder of how awful television can be, have been known to ignite an Upper West Side salon to this very day.

The Smurfs Team Up With Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir for the Festival of Lights! (1973)
This extremely ill-advised special, meant to boost morale in the Jewish-American community after the Yom Kippur War, cast the Smurfs (who had yet to star in their own Hanna-Barbera TV show but had had a feature film) as the underdog Maccabees/Hebrews fighting oppression. Meir’s inclusion led to further incongruities, as when she declared, in reference to the Smurfs’ historic enemy and his sidekick cat, “Peace will come when Gargamel loves Azrael more than he hates Israel.”

Oiled Up (2006)
This Judd Apatow-directed special was based off scripts that Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen independently wrote at the ages of 12 and 10, respectively. In it, Benjamin, a contemporary kid played by Jay Baruchel, sits around with his friends (Hill and Rogen, as well as Aziz Ansari and Jason Segel), takes a hit of some really powerful marijuana and finds himself in ancient times, leading the Jewish revolt against their Syrian oppressors. Hiding out in the mountains with his parents, Mattathias (Adam Sandler, in a purposefully fake-looking white beard) and Ali (Leslie Mann), he figures out the best way to defeat his enemies is to distract them with scantily clad women, played by various models. It seems likely that the Jews will win but end up not having enough oil for the Temple because they used it to oil up their decoys. But we don’t know for sure: Despite being allotted a two-hour time slot by ABC, Apatow’s program went way too long and nobody has seen the conclusion. Nobody has ever wanted too, either.

Bonus fact! The most-requested Hanukkah special ever is 1981’s People, Chosen People. One word: Barbra.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.