The Christmas season is a peculiar time for Jewish children, many of whom are drawn to Christmas specials like A Christmas Story. What should Jewish parents do? Guest host John Donvan talks to Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick about her Jewish parent's guide to Christmas specials.
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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
There are those who cannot get enough Christmas and love, not just every minute of it but every week of it. That season that starts running in November. The decorations, the carols playing in the mall, the TV specials, the movie marathons, 24-hours a day of "The Christmas story." Why not? But what if it's not your holiday? What if you're not Christian? Why if you are like Slate editor Dahlia Lithwick, who grew up in a Jewish household and who is now raising Jewish kids. What do you pick and choose from then to like about Christmas?
Well, she has figured out which are the Christmas season movies to watch and which ones that she is willing to give a pass to. But we want to know from you too. If you don't celebrate Christmas, what holiday movies and TV specials do you connect with anyway and why? How do you work it? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. So Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate. Her article "Christmas Specials: A Jewish Parent's Guide" was reprinted earlier this month. And she joins us by telephone from Jerusalem. Welcome, Dahlia.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: Thank you. Happy holidays.
DONVAN: Thank you. So let's start with your childhood. When you were growing up, what were the Christmas specials that your parents were fine with you watching and which one is not?
LITHWICK: You know, inexplicably, my parents were completely fine with "Charlie Brown Christmas," which they thought was completely secular and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" even more so. In fact, they think that was almost obligatory in my household, you know, of, like, conservative, you know, modern Jews. So those were the ones that were absolutely fine. And then suddenly for reasons we don't know, they drew the line there and so "Rudolph," absolutely not. "Frosty," absolutely not. So there was a clear demarcation that was never explained to me, which is why I needed to write a piece.
DONVAN: All right. I want to explore a little bit of this. Let's take a little bit of a listen to the first one you mentioned, "The Grinch who stole Christmas."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH")
THURL RAVENSCROFT: (Singing) You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel. You're as cuddly as a cactus. You're as charming as an eel. Mr. Grinch, you're a bad banana with a greasy black peel.
DONVAN: So, Dahlia Lithwick, you say this one was OK with your parents. Is it OK with you for your kids to watch this one?
LITHWICK: Well, you know, I'm in a strong position: A, because I'm spending the year in Jerusalem on book leave. And so my kids actually slip through Christmas. It didn't much happen with them. But even at home, we didn't have a TV. So I was surprised than anyone last night to hear my nine-year-old describe the entire plot of "The Grinch," beginning, middle and end. So not only did I not think of it as an issue, but apparently he's got some subversive Grinch source that told him the entire story. So yes, it would have been fine. No, we just don't have much TV but somehow we got his little grubbiness on it anyway and learned it by heart.
DONVAN: So what makes it fine?
LITHWICK: You know, I - the reason I wrote this article was because, as I said, I was so sort of slummoxed(ph) by my parents' arbitrary rule, which was nevertheless a rule. And so I put it out there on Facebook and asked all my Jewish friends what their parents rule were. And all of them were allowed to watch "The Grinch," too.
And the sort of perplexing response I got when I asked around was, well, who's more of a Grinch than, you know, a grumpy old Jewish guy that the Grinch himself is somehow secretly fundamentally kind of Jewish. And this really, I have to say, surprised me. I didn't read it that way, and I'm surprised to hear it. But it was an almost universal response that maybe Jewish kids have a slight little wish to kind of cancel Christmas. And they're channeling that through the grunchy(ph) Grinch (unintelligible).
DONVAN: I didn't know. I didn't do. I really want to embrace that. It's not very flattering.
LITHWICK: It's really not flattering. But I'm telling you, you know, when I asked, because like I say, I was just - couldn't understand why everyone that - oh, of course, us Jews, we were allowed to watch the Grinch. And when they asked, they had more than one person thing, you know, canceling Christmas is sort of a slightly secret Jewish kids' fantasy.
DONVAN: I want to go another one of the TV specials that you mentioned. And this one features not only an animal but also a guy in a red suit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")
PAUL KLIGMAN: (as Donner) Hey, look at the beak. Hey, fire snout.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, bull paws.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Red snout. (laughter)
BILLIE MAE RICHARDS: (as Rudolph) Stop calling me names.
KLIGMAN: (as Donner) Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. (Laughter)
STAN FRANCIS: (as Santa Claus) Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself. What a pity. He had a nice takeoff too.
DONVAN: All right. So that was the voice of Santa Claus criticizing the reindeers who were picking on - reindeer - it's plural, I should know that - who were picking on Rudolph. And - so this one, you said, is not on your acceptable list or is not generally on the acceptable list. How come?
LITHWICK: You know, a lot of blowback from the Jewish parents saying that the one thing they don't want more of in their house was Santa, and that it was just easier to draw the line Rudolph and say, you know, this was basically the Santa story. And it wasn't something that Jewish kids could groove on without really accepting the existence of Santa.
Now, I actually think Rudolph is kind of a sweet story, but an awful lot, again, of my respondents to my - and I should add this was a highly, highly inaccurate and completely visceral poll of people who were just generally confused, but they all said that Rudolph is not OK.
DONVAN: We are treating this as pure anecdote and not science that we're doing.
DONVAN: Dahlia Lithwick is the senior editor at Slate. And we are also asking you, our listeners, to call in. And if you're not - if you don't celebrate Christmas, nevertheless, it's in your world, and we want to know what you do about the movies or TV specials. Which ones actually connect with you? And it may not even necessarily have to have a Christmas theme explicitly but the films they show at this season that really do connect with you. And in fact, we have some listeners waiting to speak with us, so let's go to Beth in Columbus, Ohio. Beth, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. What's your reaction?
BETH: Well, yeah. I mean, we were allowed to watch most of the movies except for, like, the "Jesus of Nazareth" or any of those things. It's like absolutely not as a Jew.
BETH: But as an adult, I really like "Meet John Doe" because the message has nothing to do with Christmas, but it's still an interesting story that's about a hero who doesn't want to be recognized as a hero. And yet he becomes this mythical object through Barbara Stanwyck's writing as a reporter.
DONVAN: Mm-hmm. But do you see it - as you say, it doesn't really have a explicitly Christian theme, but you see it as a holiday season kind of film.
BETH: Yeah, they started showing it recently on Turner Classic Movies in the last two years, and I'd never seen it before. And it in a lot of ways reminds me of "It's a Wonderful Life," but it's got a really different take on things.
DONVAN: And what do you make of Dahlia's Grinch analysis?
BETH: I liked it just because I love the animation. And the part that used to scare me the most was the dog, you know? I didn't want the dog to fall off the cliff.
BETH: I don't want anything bad to happen to the dog. And the thing that creeped me out the most was at the very end when they all start holding hands singing that song because it just kind of reminded me of - I grew up in a very, very Baptist part of East Texas. And so every time I hear our father, it kind of reminds me of that, you know, or - but I don't think, you know, in terms of being mean, you know, about him being Jewish but as much as just like not liking to even have to participate in the holiday and that I can relate to.
DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much for your call. I want to go to another - Dahlia, another - one of the TV specials that you mentioned. And it's "Charlie Brown's Christmas," which you said it was acceptable. But I want to bring your attention to Linus' moment near the end when he says this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS")
CHRISTOPHER SHEA: (as Linus Van Pelt) For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you.
DONVAN: So what about that?
LITHWICK: Yep, that's in there, Luke 2. It is in there. And funnily enough, every single Jewish parent I know elides over that very, very explicit passage and still said that they were allowed to watch it and they let their kid watch it. And I think it goes to something that Beth is saying, you know, when she called, which is it still leaves a very, very nice message. I think that it felt like there was a very universal message in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that was certainly OK to parents like mine.
And I should also just add that even though Linus says the quote that you just played, one of my respondents to my poll said if there is a more profoundly Jewish line than Linus Van Pelt's quote, how can you take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem, when he asks Charlie Brown that? And someone said that's the most Jewish line in animated history. So I don't know. It does speak to some universal anxiety the same way that the Grinch does, maybe.
DONVAN: All right. Let's bring in Tanya(ph) in Oakland, California. Hi, Tanya. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DONVAN: Hi, Tanya. What's your story?
TANYA: (Technical difficulty) Christmas.
DONVAN: Hey, Tanya. Tanya, can you start again because you were entirely broken up, and now it sounds like your clear?
TANYA: Oh, I'm sorry. I was actually (technical difficulty) Afghanistan in a Muslim family.
DONVAN: Mm-hmm. Tanya, I'm sorry we have lost you. Try calling back on a different phone because we would love to hear from you because you said you were born from - in Afghanistan, and we would actually love to hear your take on these TV shows. Tim in Asheville, North Carolina, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION, Tim.
TIM: Yes. You just - you guys mentioned my favorite film of the whole season time. It was certainly "A Charlie Brown Christmas." I really am glad to hear that it made the list of acceptance because yet despite the Linus monologue towards the end there, I think it does just go far more universal especially towards the end when they bring the Christmas tree out and all eat it with a little love and then everybody is all merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, after he had nothing but blockhead, blockhead, this and that, the other thing. I think it really just points to a universal truth of, you know, let's put aside the differences of psychological mumbo-jumbo and let's just learn how to love one another. And I just really think it's just a great film in that respect.
DONVAN: All right. Tim, thanks very much for sharing that. And let's go into - let's bring in Justin from Chico, California. Hi, Justin. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
JUSTIN: Hey. How are you...
JUSTIN: Thank you. How are you doing?
DONVAN: Good, good.
JUSTIN: One movie that keeps coming back to my mind is "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." I think that's...
JUSTIN: ...dysfunctionality and the drama that that family goes through, and everything is an ordeal. It's kind of something that a lot of us can relate to.
DONVAN: A lot of us what? A lot of us people?
JUSTIN: A lot of us with the Jewish mothers, Jewish grandmothers.
DONVAN: Dahlia, do you want to...
JUSTIN: (Unintelligible) derived from the East Coast, yes.
DONVAN: Dahlia, you want to weigh in on that?
LITHWICK: Oh, two thumbs up, absolutely, very relatable. And I think, you know, something that another caller had mentioned. I also think "It's a Wonderful Life" was just one of those films that, you know, if you're going to watch one and only one I think it's just such a, you know, lovely, lovely heartwarming story that still makes me weep. So I do think that, you know, much of what I came to the conclusion it sounds like so many listeners are coming to the same conclusion is that you don't get to fussed about this stuff because - really and the messages are so great and warm and loving for your kids and that kind of is more important I think than blocking them and censoring them for no discernable reason.
DONVAN: Thanks for your call, Justin. And Kaye(ph) in Silver Spring, you are on TALK OF THE NATION. How are you, Kaye?
KAYE: Hi. Merry Christmas.
DONVAN: Merry Christmas.
KAYE: Several things but the outstanding one is that I'm Jewish. I left my religious group's Hanukkah party early one year and went to see Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in "A Wonderful Life," and she didn't have a wonderful life. She was a most loving, gracious person, and it was such a thrill to be photographed with her. And even if I'm at a movie or with other Jews in a theater or in Christmas Eve, I rush home to see as much as I can of "It's a Wonderful Life." It always brings me to tears. It's just a perfect film.
DONVAN: Listen, that's interesting because Dahlia - when Dahlia was speaking earlier, I got the sense that that parental reaction that you were talking about is absolutely - they're not going to see a film that's about, say, the birth of Christ, the nativity scene because that's somehow crosses a line and needs to be - there needs to be a defense against that I guess is what it sounds like you're saying. And yet, I'm hearing you say, Kaye, that you don't feel that you need a defense that you're confident in who you are and you can go love that film and it's full of, you know, angels and all of that and Christmas trees, and you're good with it.
KAYE: I'm absolutely good with that and several other things and listening to the Messiah in the morning, and it's just a loving and appreciating the rest of my larger culture.
DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much for your call, Kaye.
DONVAN: Dahlia, you want to comment on that?
LITHWICK: Yeah. Just that, you know, I think that what you hit on is sort of the core truth here, which is that it didn't seem that parents have these hard and fast immutable rules, but they were arbitrary and often born of some notion of, you know, this is too much, this is not enough, this is where I draw the line. But that when you're really, really pressed, there wasn't a line. There was just something that parents did out of some anxiety, you know, some deep-seated fear that something was too much or something was excessive. And so I do think that wherever the line was drawn, at the end of day, it made no sense, and the real question is why draw the line in the first place.
DONVAN: Let's bring in Beth here in San Andreas, California. Beth, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
BETH: I live in an interesting area because by choice most of us were pretty well educated, but we chose not to have TVs in our homes at all and - but I remember the "Charlie Brown Christmas," and I liked it for one specific reason: that ugly little tree. And that ugly little tree reminded me of the people that you pass by every day, you know, maybe it's a homeless person, maybe it's somebody, a bag lady or something, somebody who's different who doesn't fit in. And it really changed my whole way of thinking as far as reaching out to the untouchables, as you might call them.
DONVAN: Right. So for you, this film was - the Charlie Brown special was not about Christianity. It's something...
BETH: No. And the thing - interesting thing is while we're a Christian family, I'm shampooing carpets today. But even though it's really interesting because a few weeks ago, the local PBS station had weeklong specials every night about Hanukkah and the Jewish history and stuff, and I'm sitting there and going, well, wait a minute, does this mean Christians should turn off the TV that week because they're talking about Judaism?
DONVAN: Right. Well, listen, I want to thank you for your call, Beth, and I...
BETH: Thank you.
DONVAN: ...also want to thank Dahlia Lithwick who we didn't even get to talk about "A Year Without Santa Claus." Can you tell me about it in 15 seconds where it stands?
LITHWICK: Just - I will just tell you this: I'm teaching a class at the law school here, and I had a student come up and beg me yesterday to miss class because it was Christmas. And that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I had one student in my class who was saying I just have to miss tomorrow. So, yeah, it's that different here. It's really a completely other world, and yet Christmas here is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful for all the reasons that Christmas in Jerusalem should be.
DONVAN: Thank you so much. Dahlia Lithwick is the senior editor at Slate. You can find a link to her guide at our website. Go to npr.org. She joined us by telephone from Jerusalem. Thanks so much for being with us, Dahlia.
LITHWICK: Have a beautiful holiday. Thanks.
DONVAN: And tomorrow, Jennifer Ludden will be here with a look at how we can figure out if our charitable donations are really making the difference that we hope they are. Come back for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.