It’s been 24 years since Nickelodeon first aired “A Rugrats Chanukah” and with a reboot just on the horizon, I say it’s high-time for another special inspired by the Festival of Lights. The original Rugrats was rather groundbreaking in the way that it embraced Jewish culture, which can seem idiosyncratic at times, without trepidation.
The show’s decision to produce episodes centered around Chanukah and Passover was incredibly bold because neither holiday has the near-universal appeal of, say, Christmas or Halloween. Jewish kids who grew up watching these specials never forgot them (and continue to watch them every year) because a children’s network — one that probably worked hard to appeal to the widest audience it could — was willing to acknowledge a small portion of its viewers, affirming that while their religious observance was different, it was no less deserving of media representation.
Nickelodeon needs to remember that with the upcoming revival, which should totally make another Chanukah special based on Daniel Kibblesmith and Cullen Crawford’s C is for Chanukah. Published by Boom! Studios’ KaBOOM! imprint in 2018, the one-shot comic is a perfect example how the IP can distill centuries of Jewish tradition and folklore into fun and easy digestible content for consumers of all ages.
“The fact that so many people have such intense memories about the Rugrats Passover [and Chanukah] special[s] really reveals how little Jewish media representation there is for young kids,” Kibblesmith told me via email. “I’d love to see more Jewish holiday specials and the Rugrats seem like a perfect vehicle for it, because they’re babies and it’s built-in that they’re learning all the stories and traditions for the first time.”
What makes C is for Chanukah so exceptional is the unexpected plot. It could’ve been a lazy rehash of the original special meant to cash in on ‘90s kid nostalgia, but that’s not the case. When Grandpa Boris (Tommy’s maternal grandfather) sits the babies down to tell them the true story of the holiday, he accidentally recounts the tale of Prague’s Judah Loew ben Bezalel and his Golem. Staying true to the legend, artist Kate Sherron perfectly renders the Golem in all of its imposing glory, right down to the Hebrew word for truth (“Eemet”) branded across its forehead.
“It’s always fun getting to work on properties from my youth!” Sherron said. Rugrats in particular was a favorite of mine — I’ll always remember what a treat it was when I got to watch the show over at my grandma’s house, since we couldn’t afford cable at home. As an adult, it’s been a blast getting to find ways to celebrate the original while also infusing a bit of myself in the art, as well.”
Bringing a famous bit of Kabbalist mysticism into the equation turns the comic into a lively romp with deep roots in Judaism’s rich past. It’s not afraid to get a little weird as the titular group of toddlers (Tommy, Chucky, Lil, and Phil) imagine themselves as “Golem-busters” looking to use the lights of Chanukah in an effort to defeat the clay-born creature. Simply put: Kibblesmith and Crawford were able to concoct an inspired remix of Jewish tropes and traditions.
C is for Chanukah is a perfect introduction to the culture on multiple levels, which is why it would work so well in animated form. It’s also got an important message about acceptance and multiculturalism as Boris clashes with Tommy’s non-Jewish paternal grandfather, Lou over holiday traditions. Whether you want to see Reptar aiding the Maccabees or Phil and Lil arguing over who the Golem will eat first, this one has it all.
Raymie Muzquiz, director of the original Chanukah special, isn’t too sure about the idea of revisiting a timeless classic. “Honestly, I am not excited by the notion of remaking ‘A Rugrats Chanukah.’ It nicely inhabits — at least for me personally — a time, a style, and a franchise from the past like A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he said.
A veteran animation director of golden age Nick shows like Rugrats and Hey Arnold!, Muzquiz is still on the fence about the reboot, which is being rendered with CG in favor of the original 2D/hand-drawn look.
“Remakes … mostly tread on and devalue the original shows that usually have earned their place in our culture and a fondness in our memory,” he added. “Sure, the remakes can be slicker, faster-paced, and [include] contemporary references, but this kind of revisionist history discounts the ineffable charm the original shows had due to their vintage limitations and aesthetics. Something is inevitably lost in a remake, so it better be loaded with loads of reasons and exciting new notions to legitimize being remade.”
That said, Muzquiz is open to realizing “an animated Purim spiel” he once pitched to Rugrats’ studio, Klasky-Csupo. “My heart’s desire would be an adaptation of the picture book, Queen Ester The Morning Star by Mordecai Gerstein. The art is very inspirational and well-suited for animation. I particularly like the flat, pre-enlightenment tableaus that eschew traditional perspective, giving it a provocative art direction.”
Sadly, he never locked down the rights to the book “since there was no demand for my idea (the usual state of affairs).”
“A Rugrats Chanukah” is currently available to stream on CBS All Access.
Rugrats: Building Blocks, a paperback collection that contains C is for Chanukah, is now available on Amazon