‘A Festival of Delights’ Kindles Hanukkah Memories

November 28, 2018
“Hanukkah: A Festival of Delights” examines the traditions at the center of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, including lighting candles for eight nights on the lamp known as a menorah. Photo by Yehoshua Halevi

They barely knew each other and their time together was limited, but with the camera rolling, documentarian David Anton got the man known worldwide as Captain Kirk to share — of all things — a cherished Hanukkah memory.

“I asked him to describe his mother’s kitchen,” Anton recalled of his interview with William Shatner for the documentary “Hanukkah: A Festival of Delights” which begins airing on PBS stations Dec 2. “He smiled and looked off to the side and said, ‘The stove is over here and the place to eat is over here, and my mother is standing over a frying pan dropping ground potatoes into sizzling fat, and there’s a bowl of applesauce on the table, and I had a glass of milk in my hands….’”

“I only had about twelve minutes with Mr. Shatner,” Anton said. “I got the sense that that was the first time he had ever been asked those questions, and it brought him back to some of those moments in his life.”

As “Festival of Delights” so profoundly demonstrates in its 60 minutes, Hanukkah often has that kind of effect on people. It is the favorite and most personal holiday for many Jews for an assortment of reasons, according to the film. Many consider it a holiday built around the celebration of a military victory and the subsequent miracle of the lights. Sometimes viewed as the “Jewish Christmas,” many use Hanukkah as an opportunity to indulge in the gift-giving spirit of the season.

That’s not uncommon, and the film traces the child-focused consumerization of the holiday to Max Lilienthal and Isaac Mayer Wise, a pair of Reform rabbi from Cincinnati. In the mid 19th century, Lilenthal and Wise created family festivals out of the holiday in their synagogues and publicized the festivals through newspapers that they operated, later getting congregants from synagogues across the country to talk about how their congregations had created similar events. The trend grew and the holiday took on a new meaning to millions of American Jews. 

But in exploring his subject, a follow-up to his film “Hugs and Knishes: A Celebration of Our Jewish Foods and Traditions,” Anton had a different kind of agenda than exploring the “Jewish Christmas.” Instead, he came to view Hanukkah as the Jewish Thanksgiving. 

“I was looking to make a film for families that would bring the holiday back to the original theme of hope that we explore in the film that is so important these days,” Anton said. “I started off with the idea of a young girl and a young boy asking questions of their rabbi, and that became a theme of the program.”

The film features interviews with Rabbi David Ingber of Kehilat Romemu in New York, and Rabbi Rafi Rank of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, Long Island; authors Dianne Ashton and Abigail Pogrebin; Susan L. Braunstein, senior curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City and Judaica artist Joy Stember. In addition to Shatner, the other celebrity voice comes from actress Lainie Kazan (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “My Favorite Year”) who talks about preparing for her grandson’s first Hanukkah. 

The sweet, festive and savory traditions like dreidel spinning, chocolate gelt devouring and latke frying are all favorites, but it’s the menorah and the symbolism of the Hanukkah lights that, according to the film, take us into a deeper discussion of what the holiday is all about. A Jew’s willingness to put a menorah in the window not only announces his pride in his cultural heritage, but also symbolizes a desire to shine a light during dark times. 

Pogrebin learned several perspectives on the holiday while researching her 2017 book “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.” Multiple rabbis conveyed the idea that Hanukkah was a holiday recognizing the Jews’ ability to fight back against Assyrian oppression and worship openly.

“The Maccabees were, in a sense, to use the modern shorthand, [the] ultra-Orthodox of their day,” Pogrebin said. “They had no tolerance of those Jews who became enamored of the Greek way of life and had become Hellenized. I had rabbi after rabbi tell me that Hanukkah should be a warning, reminding us of what happens when we become Hellenists and water down our Judaism.”

She discusses the year that her family observed the holiday around the hospital bed of her dying father-in-law and notes the fact that Jews gather as families and continue to embrace the light and hope even when one of their members is departing. 

To Anton, Pogrebin’s story has a parallel to an account told by Rabbi Rank of a rabbi who was a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Although any celebration was forbidden, the rabbi and his fellow inmates gathered a potato, some butter and some threads and manufactured a makeshift menorah. One of the inmates got angry, complaining the potato and butter were valuable nutrients that should be consumed by the starving prisoners. 

“The rabbi said, ‘I understand, but remember that people can live without food, but the day they do not have hope, they cannot live another second,’” Anton said. “I loved that story and the message that even during the darkest times of the year, we always look forward and always look for solutions to the problems that surround us.”

“Hanukkah: A Festival of Delights” airs Dec. 2 on PBS SoCal at noon, and on KVCR at 5 p.m.; Dec. 3 on KCET at 1 p.m.; and Dec. 8 on KCET at 7 p.m.  

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