Old Bethpage resident David Anton has worked at WLIW/21 and WNET/13 for 30 years, while his nights and weekends are devoted to Code Bleu, a popular band that plays weddings and assorted other gigs around Long Island. (He's on bass.) All of which gets around to the obvious question: When did he find time to produce "Hanukkah: A Festival of deLights" (Sunday at 8 p.m. on WNET/13), a warm, congenial and expansive film about the Jewish holiday, which begins Dec. 2 and concludes Dec. 10.
Hanukkah — which commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem in 165 BCE by Judah Maccabee, who led the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire — is called an "accessible" Jewish holiday by one commentator in this film, while Anton explores why. The film covers the history of the holiday, and its totemic elements, including the menorah, dreidel and (of course) latkes. Among those interviewed are celebrities like William Shatner.
Meanwhile, author Abigail Pogrebin ("My Jewish Year") says that the holiday is not the "Jewish Christmas," but in fact more closely allied with Thanksgiving, while its message is about paying "attention to . . . those little miracles that are happening in your daily life."
I spoke recently with Anton, whose "Hugs and Knishes: A Celebration of our Jewish Food and Traditions" aired on Channels 13 and 21 in 2016. An edited version follows:
Why do a program like this?
I noticed that there were quite a few films about Christmas but I haven't seen too much about Hanukkah, so the idea of families being able to sit down and enjoy a film like this was exciting to me, and I felt there was a need.
Was producing a film like this a major change from what you usually do at Channel 21?
I've worked at PBS for over 30 years and was never a producer, but more of a technical person — cameraman, editor, lighting person and everything else. But it was a big deal doing this on my own [and] that's what makes it very exciting to me. But having a full-time job and being a musician made this very challenging.
When and why did Hanukkah become so important in the United States?
It was basically just after the Civil War, with the support of two Reform rabbis in Cincinnati, Max Lilienthal and Isaac Mayer Wise. Lilienthal was well-liked in the community and one of the few rabbis invited to speak at churches. He noticed all these festivals for kids at church and wondered, what are they doing? There's nothing for our kids. They launched activities for them and both had [Hebrew-language] newspapers to publicize them. Those were read by Reform congregations all around the country and they adopted these festivals for their own congregations.
The author Abigail Pogrebin also points out that Hanukkah at times has occasioned a debate in the American Jewish community over who is more Jewish. Has that debate subsided or does it persist?
It was one of the moments in the film where friends said you shouldn't bring that up, but it's such a real topic and one that so many Jews deal with. Basically what she's saying is that [the revolt of the Maccabees] was a war of Jew versus Jew. She was comparing that with today and how you have Orthodox Jews who are saying the others are not Jewish enough, nor religious enough, nor learned enough, while the other half is saying, "Don't tell me how to be Jewish."
You don't see William Shatner talking often about Judaica. Were you surprised at the depth of his understanding?
He was wonderful. Sometimes when you ask someone something you get the sense that it's something they've said a thousand times before but with him I got the sense that this was the first time he'd ever been asked about this. I asked him if he could describe his mother's kitchen [growing up in Montreal] and he smiled, then looked over to the left — "There's a stove over there, and there's my mother cooking fried potatoes and there's a bowl of applesauce . . ." He was searching for the words. It was so real and genuine.
The Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh would seem to give a particularly mournful backdrop to this year's holiday; can this film help in any way?
Let me give you a little bit of an answer. It's kind of what I would say if you ask me what you would hope people get from this film. In the times we're living in, where you're seeing innocent people killed for being Jewish . . . the Hanukkah story is the story of coming through the darkness and the hope that these candles represent. Telling these stories and sharing them on public TV gives everyone a chance to reflect on where we come from. And to people who are non-Jews, to give them a sense of our religion and what it stands for.