One of my favorite parts of the holiday season is watching the multitude of Christmas movies we’ve spent our lives with. I love A Charlie Brown Christmas, I cry like a baby at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and each year sparks a new debate over which is the best version of A Christmas Carol. For me, holiday movies are as much a part of the season as eggnog and lights on the tree.
The problem, however, is that I have a son who’s Jewish. And while he celebrates both holidays, I always feel bad that there are so few quality movies that help him celebrate Hanukkah. Sure, there’s Eight Crazy Nights, Full-Court Miracle and even The Hebrew Hammer, but none of them have ever really been able to stick the way the great Christmas movies have.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great pieces of literature that celebrate Jewish culture, and big-screen treatments of many of them—even ones that aren’t specifically about Hanukkah—would make great movies for the Festival of Lights. So braise yourself a brisket, fry up a platter of latkes, and help yourself to these miraculous stories in which the traditions of Judaism shine as brightly as a menorah. And Hollywood, get cracking—someday, I want reruns of movie versions of these books to be part of my grandchildren’s traditional holiday celebrations.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Random House, 2000)
This is my favorite novel of all time. There, I said it. Of all the novels I’ve ever read, none has provided the transcendentally magical experience of the story of cousins Sammy Clay, a self-described “little man, city boy and Jew” dreaming of making it big in the world of comic books; and Joseph Kavalier, an accomplished artist and Harry Houdini devotee. When the boys are introduced after Joseph escapes Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, they join forces in America to create the Escapist, the first of many phenomenally successful comic-book characters. Beyond that, however, the novel, rich with Jewish culture and tradition, explores the lives of the two men—particularly Joseph, who is driven by guilt and grief for the family he left behind. A story of action and atmosphere, heroism and heartbreak, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is as good as modern fiction gets. How it hasn’t reached the big screen by now is beyond me.
Snow in August by Pete Hamill (Little, Brown; 1997)
In the days when newspapers still mattered, one of the great pleasures of reading the New York Post and Daily News was the columns of Pete Hamill. Hamill’s writing is the texture and flavor of New York City converted to ink, and in Snow in August he adroitly captures the Brooklyn of Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers, and neighborhoods where the Jews and the Irish mix—sometimes not with the best of results. When 11-year-old Michael Devlin, the son of a war widow, befriends Rabbi Judah Hirsch, their relationship angers the Falcons, a local street gang. The only power that can rescue Michal, his mother and Hirsch from the peril of the notorious gang is the Golem, a magical creature made from mud by someone pure of heart who knows the secret name of God. Snow in August is a moving tale of a bygone era, and at its core is the kind of friendship and love that can warm the heart around the holidays. (A TV movie based on the novel was made in 2001, but has all but disappeared. It’s time for a big-screen reboot of this beautiful story.)
The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman (Ecco, 2014)
Kirkus Review says that with its “wheeling stars, magical rabbi, disgraced angels, black dogs and European hinterland,” this novel is reminiscent of Marc Chagall’s visionary art. Marjorie and Holly are keenly devoted sisters, until Holly unexpectedly marries Nathan, an orthodox Jew from a mysterious sect. When Holly gives birth to Eli, her first child (named after the girls’ grandfather), Marjorie is afraid that she’s lost her sister forever. Searching through their grandfather’s possessions, however, Marjorie finds a notebook with stories about the White Rebbe, a religious guru and carrier of the Sabbath Light who owes a promise to the mythical Angel of Losses. When young Eli falls gravely ill, Marjorie must venture deep into the past and back to the present to reconnect with her estranged sister and save her nephew’s life. This novel has all the magic and mythology one looks for in a holiday tale.