December brings warm feelings, quality time, snow (depending on location) and a slew of Christmas content. There’s nothing wrong with getting in the holiday spirit, but it’s important to remember that the Christmas spirit is not the only festive spirit around.
My memories of festive December content do not include “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Elf” (though “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was read to me against my will at every elementary school December assembly). As you can probably imagine, Hanukkah-themed content is relatively scarce: Jews only account for .19% of the world’s population and, truth be told, Hanukkah is not among the most important Jewish holidays. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s nonexistent. So what occupies the niche? “Chanukah On Planet Matzah Ball,” of course. Think the Muppets, but Judaism-themed, and all they talk about is Hanukkah. The 30+ minute special introduces viewers to Hanukkah customs and history through songs and skits performed by several fuzzy, brightly colored Jewish inhabitants of a distant planet made of Matzah. The tone of the special — warm, joyful and mostly free of the heaviness of discrimination — represented a contrast to my experiences as a Jewish person outside the home, where I was met with the same ignorance and hate that fuels both Kanye West’s recent comments and rising antisemitism as a whole.
My family is … not incredibly rigid about tradition. I remember us “rescheduling” nights of Hanukkah to evenings that were more convenient. Of course, the reason not every night was convenient was that the world simply does not stop for Hanukkah (or even take notice of it) the way it does for Christmas. On any given night of Hanukkah, my little sister and I were liable to sports practices, rehearsals and tests to study for as my parents went about their jobs as usual. Thus, watching “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” was not a tradition in the sense that every first night of Hanukkah we would abandon all else and sit down to enjoy it, but it was something that we might enjoy around that time of year, when the opportunity presented itself.
In the opening moments of the “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” special, the fuzzy muppets you can’t help but love chant with pride “We are Jewish! We are Jewish!” My family and I sometimes repeated the chant privately in our home as a meme when we felt we were doing something particularly Jewish (ex: eating kugel for lunch all week long), or ironically, in the instances when we would forget that it was a Jewish holiday and/or fail to celebrate it altogether. I could never imagine repeating the phrase with so much pride as the muppets, to be silly or otherwise, outside the comfort of my own home.
With every holiday season came endless cries of “You’ve never seen ‘Elf?!’” or “You’ve never seen ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas?’” In every store/social gathering/public space, Christmas song after Christmas song after Christmas song (which I, of course, couldn’t say I had no interest in listening to). Though the questions themselves were innocent, usually asked by other children, they revealed the presence of a Christian hegemony and, more clearly to me at that age, the fact that I was an outsider who did not belong. I could not take solace in a plethora of my own Hanukkah themed media, countering the questions with “I haven’t, but I do have these various media, all of which mean something important to me at this time of year,” because “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” was all I ever had. Though I feel quite affectionately about it (and am aware that somewhere in the stratosphere there is a handful of other niche Hanukkah media), I have never met another person who has heard of it, much less seen it.
My strongest memory of “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” is of one particular viewing. It was Christmas day, and we were traveling to go see my mother’s family. To occupy our attention, my mother brought a small DVD player. We selected “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball.” An airline employee dressed as an elf (who had previously expressed her enthusiasm for “the holidays” on the intercom) harshly told my sister and I, very young children at the time, that we needed to turn it off, though we were no louder than anyone else in the vicinity. The instance is incredibly representative of the trend that characterized my childhood and those of Jewish children throughout the United States: Judaism was not simply overlooked in public life, but actively unwelcome.
The “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” special sees these sweet, fuzzy aliens become reacquainted with lost Hanukkah traditions through the arrival of a menorah and the observation of a Hanukkah party on planet Earth. Though the muppet aliens are Jews too, their planet’s unexplained loss of the traditions made them outsiders, too, as they observed the Hanukkah party. I saw Oogy (the young Matzah Ballian most intrigued by Hanukkah and Earth) observe the human Jews, their traditions and their rich history (riddled with persecution) with wonder, openness and an appreciation for their perseverance. Yet, the message I received from the outside world was that our culture was to be ignored at best and feared and demonized at worst.
That trend was not limited to childhood, nor have I witnessed signs of improvement with time. You might have noticed that I am writing this article anonymously. To attach this article to my name would be to publicly and permanently declare myself Jewish on the Internet, and casual antisemitism is, if anything, increasingly commonplace and encouraged. Though recent events all but made the decision to remain anonymous for me, I might always have been skeptical about declaring my faith for the world to hear. Not out of shame, but fear and generational trauma. I learned about the Holocaust in detail from a young age, both from my family and religious institutions. I visited museums where I saw pictures of children who had been murdered when they were much younger than me. I saw piles and piles of shoes, including some baby bootees, all of which once belonged to somebody. I was painfully aware that the only reason those shoes were left without an owner was that they, like me, were Jewish. Without being instructed, I mostly kept my faith private from even close friends growing up. When they asked me what I was doing for Christmas, I crafted my response carefully and never corrected them. Nobody had ever told me that another global massacre was coming, but I understood that, despite the admirable optimism of the slogan “never again,” it could.
There is a distinct part of “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” that rings true outside the comfort of the Jewish home. Throughout the special, the aliens of Planet Matzah Ball want desperately to know what it is one is supposed to do with a menorah, the oddly shaped object that appeared on their doorstep. It’s Oogy, the most interested and dedicated alien, who sits by the screen all night observing the humans hoping to find out. He calls the rest of his family over each time he thinks he’s about to discover the purpose of the menorah. Each time the humans bring out a book, a basket of potatoes, or some other object that is not the menorah (but still an important part of their Hanukkah celebration), Oogy’s family loses faith in his ability to discover the answer. “Don’t worry! I won’t give up! You can count on me. I’m going to keep trying.” When Jews like me speak out about antisemitism, we, like Oogy, are dismissed and seek so desperately to be believed. Though recent events make the reality of the situation glaringly obvious (at least to me), there have always been and always will be people who dismiss antisemitism because they think that white Jews’ recent access to whiteness, and the privilege that comes with it, means that they cannot also experience oppression. This is simply not the case. Jews experience the privileges of whiteness, as well as oppression/violent antisemitism simultaneously.
In recent years, I am increasingly reminded of this fact, and the stakes. In 2018, my congregation’s sister synagogue Tree of Life was the site of a mass shooting in Pittsburgh. Eleven Jews were murdered. Eleven friends, family members and community members. Our Sunday Schoolers exchanged letters and words of support with theirs. Antisemitic behavior reached a record high in 2021, and the situation is only more dire in 2022. Antisemitic graffiti on school and Jewish community buildings has become commonplace. As recently as December 14, an antisemitic attacker committing a violent hate crime reportedly yelled “Kanye 2024,” in reference to support for a Kanye West presidential run. The comment suggests that the attacker felt inspired by Kanye West, who lost several partnerships (and, temporarily, his Twitter account) in October after using the platform to post threatening messages about Jewish people and a swastika. Though these suspensions and lost brand deals seem like consequences, they’re merely slaps on the wrist, petty obstacles, as Kanye maintains his relevancy and, most concerning, his listeners. Kanye’s recent behavior is just one indicator that antisemitism is becoming acceptable again, if you believe that it was ever really socially unacceptable.
Though Oogy and the Jews from Earth in “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” experience exclusively Jewish joy without a hint of oppression (barring a brief mention of historical violence against Jews), I saw (and continue to see) antisemitism quite often. Some antisemitism is casual — so much so that if you aren’t Jewish, you might not even notice it or might not see it as cause for alarm. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, or said yourself, that someone does or doesn’t “look Jewish,” it’s a microaggression. The term “globalist,” and the notion that there is a globally-controlling “cabal,” is an antisemitic dog whistle, peddled notably by the 45th president. Even institutions with a sizable Jewish population and a relatively acceptable track record with respect to Judaism like the University of Michigan are not safe havens. In a college course, my professor used swastikas as an example of symbolic signs and included images thereof in lecture. The professor failed to mention the damage done by Nazism or the propaganda disseminated to make it happen. Symbolic signs are in no way correlated with religion, extremism or genocide and mean only that the visual has nothing to do with what it represents but for the way it has been constructed in discourse. The professor also provided the example of the Nike swoosh. In another course, we read an incredibly blatantly antisemitic story as part of the course text. In class, our professor asked whether we thought it should be assigned in schools, just to spur conversation. I felt obligated to explain that antisemitic material should only be shared in limited contexts if the presenter knows how to properly condemn and educate about the material at hand, which is rarely the case.
I told my (thankfully small) class that I never wanted to talk about Kanye West. I want to talk about Kanye West even less than I want to see and hear about him. Yet, in November, the image of a banner supporting Kanye’s recent remarks about Jews hung over the 405 in Los Angeles, superimposed with text that read “antisemitism is real,” appeared on my Instagram feed countless times, shared by well-meaning acquaintances, friends of friends and people I knew in high school that I should have unfollowed by now who thought that they were helping. The fact of the matter is that despite their good intentions, the mass circulation of the banner leads people to believe that it is an increasingly acceptable and common belief to hold — that they should be able to hate the Jews and call for their extermination loudly.
I want to write exclusively about the ways my family celebrates the holidays and nostalgic festive media like my Christian counterparts, but all of this forces my hand. It is all the more important that I talk about Kanye West, rising antisemitism and the right that every human being should have to be who they are without fear for their lives. For me, Judaism is the love, light and family I saw play out on screen during the celebrations of “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball” — but sadly, in real life, being Jewish also means being afraid to share it with the world. So, this December, in lieu of seasonal uproar over a holiday Starbucks cup (for being … too close to inclusive?), I bring you this: an honest look at the tiny slice of media that allows us to feel seen, the evolving situation and the little part of our minds that is always wondering “what if?” Luckily, my lived experience shares one more thing with the story of Oogy and “Chanukah on Planet Matzah Ball”: Jewish perseverance and a dogged determination to thrive.