Every December, network sitcoms make a point of giving loyal viewers a Christmas episode. If you’re looking for Very Special Hanukkah Episodes, though, you’d be lucky to find enough examples to program one night of television … let alone eight. Fortunately, there’s one show on the air working to change that. For the second season in a row, ABC’s hit nostalgia-fest The Goldbergs is hosting a Hanukkah half-hour to entertain Jews and non-Jews alike.
It’s a tradition that started with last year’s episode, “A Christmas Story” (which, title notwithstanding, really was about Hanukkah), and continues Dec. 14 with “Han Ukkah Solo,” which blasts the Jewish Festival of Lights into a galaxy far, far away. While Barry and Erica compete over who can craft the best Hanukkah song for their school’s holiday pageant, Adam feels a disturbance in the Force when he witnesses the debacle known as The Star Wars Holiday Special. We spoke with Goldbergs showrunner Adam F. Goldberg about giving Hanukkah a television platform, and the Christmas episodes that defined his “casually Jewish” childhood.
Like you, I grew up in a Jewish household during the ‘80s, and I remember the dearth of Hanukkah-themed holiday episodes on TV. But I did watch a lot of Christmas episodes and specials, and that’s how I learned about that holiday. Do you hope young non-Jews are able to learn about Hanukkah in the same way from The Goldbergs?
It’s funny — with this episode, I lean more towards the other story, which is about the Star Wars Holiday Special. That storyline is all about how Adam sees that special, which is the first version of Star Wars that he doesn’t love, and it shakes him to the core. Then Pops shows him that the special is great in its own way. That’s the experience I had watching it as a kid, so this is a very emotional story that I’m excited to share with people. Because if I have a religion, it’s the Force! [Laughs]
As far the Hanukkah element of the episode goes, we just wanted to tell a really fun story about what it’s like growing up [Jewish], and there are no Hanukkah songs except for the dreidel song. So this episode involves how Beverly loves hearing Erica sing, and then goes out of her way to con her kids into writing their own Hanukkah song they can perform at the holiday concert. For example, Barry creates this whole rap called “Judah Maccabee, Dinosaur Hunter.” It’s spicing up the holiday a little bit. I guess what I want people to take away from it is that experience of having to stand in the Christmas concert singing about another holiday. For me, growing up, that experience was kind of a bummer, but we made a funny take on it.
You held off on doing a Hanukkah-themed episode until the third season. Was there a reason you decided to wait?
There was no waiting. I mean, the show is called The Goldbergs, and Pops has always speaking Yiddish. It was just a matter of finding the right story to tell. With the first season, I didn’t know that I would get more than five episodes, so I was just telling the stories that I thought were the most important to get people to understand the family. The holiday episode in our first season was “Kara-te,” which I think might be the best episode of the series.
And then in the second season, we couldn’t figure out a Hanukkah story we wanted to tell. Eventually, we figured out one that would work, which was the idea of Pops and Beverly warring over what Hanukkah should look like, and that became our Season 3 episode, “A Christmas Story.” After that, it took me about a year to convince Lucasfilm to do a Star Wars Holiday Special-themed episode, so that’s why we’re doing this one now. [Growing up], Hanukkah wasn’t that huge of a deal; my siblings were older than me and out of the house, and I was the third child, so I often got the short end of the stick in terms of celebrations.
Are there any Hanukkah episodes that you do recall from your TV-watching youth?
The only thing that comes to mind is the episode of The Wonder Years when Paul had his bar mitzvah, and Kevin gets super-jealous. But then he realizes he’s part of that family and that Paul is like his brother and he has a great time. Other than that, nothing comes to mind. And that’s good for us, I guess, because it means it’s fresh. It’s not a holiday you’ve seen a lot on TV.
What were some of your favorite holiday episodes that you watched as a kid?
I have a great appreciation for the ALF Christmas special. I taped every episode of that show as a kid, including that special. It’s a very dark episode, done single-camera style. It’s almost a mini-movie. I mean, ALF cries puppet tears, there’s a kid who’s dying of cancer and we find out the father was homeless as a kid! It’s just very dark. We watched it in the Goldbergs writers’ room as kind of a perfect ’80s time-capsule comedy turned drama.
Lucasfilm doesn’t generally like to acknowledge the existence of The Star Wars Holiday Special. Was it difficult to get its permission to make it part of the episode?
In a world where they have this new Star Wars empire that they’re building up, doing a full-on episode right before their new movie [Rogue One] comes out about a special that George Lucas has disowned was a tough sell. It took a lot of passion, phone calls, and help from ABC executives. And maybe it’s silly to have that kind of passion, but that’s what makes our show what it is. The character of Adam really loves Star Wars, and he is me.
The thing about The Star Wars Holiday Special is that there’s a short about Boba Fett in it, which I ended up watching over and over and thought was the coolest thing ever. So [in the episode] Adam ultimately realizes that the special introduced his favorite character, which makes it an important piece of material because without it, there’d be no Boba Fett. I think everyone really loved that my heart was in it. Perhaps they were rolling their eyes behind my back, but they really helped me push it through, which is great.
Now that you’ve done two Hanukkah episodes, will it become an annual tradition going forward?
I’m not going to do a holiday episode unless I really have a great story. I don’t want to shoehorn it in, because I still feel like every episode can make or break the show, even though we’re 80 episodes in. I don’t have any ideas for next year yet, but I hope something great will pop up between now and then. All it takes is one notion that feels very real to me, like someone singing the dreidel song [at a Christmas concert] and everyone would kind of half-ass it. When I heard that, I was like, “That’s totally true. Let’s do an episode about that.”
The Goldbergs airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Watch clips and full episodes of The Goldbergs on Yahoo View.