Many of us look toward our favorite TV shows mounting holiday episodes with a mixture of apprehension and perhaps naïve hope. They have the potential of turning out brilliantly focused work in an attempt to cement their status in cultural iconography, and around mainstream American holidays, online publications are rife with listicles ranking the best, most innovative, or heartwarming Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving adventures. Rarely, however, do any of them mention the undisputed best holiday episode of all time — one which combines humor, heart, underrepresented tradition, grand cinematography, and (say it with me now) Ancient Egyptian Reptar Bars.
“A Rugrats Passover,” first aired in April of 1995, and although it was edged out of a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Series by The Simpsons, it lives on in the fond memories and neon-orange VHS’ of many American Jews’ households. Of course, more than Jewish viewers alone tuned in, with a 3.1 Nielsen score making the tots’ Old Testament tale Nickelodeon’s highest-rated episode ever. A family meal gone awry is hardly a premise unique to any holiday episode, but Rugrats depicted a holiday that carried little weight in most American household’s past name recognition. Even today, Rugrats is one of the only points of reference for a mainstream TV depiction of Passover, and its viewing has become a tradition in and of itself as a point of levity, nostalgia, and translation without too much dilution.
It would have been enough (Dayenu!) for Jewish co-creator Arlene Klasky to go with the original idea of a Chanukah special as suggested by network executives – an episode which did eventually come to fruition as “A Rugrats Chanukah” in the fourth season. However, Klasky, along with Gábor Csupó, Paul Germain, and episode writers Peter Gaffney, Rachel Lipman, and Jonathan Greenberg decided to tell a story that centered around the importance of tradition. One which, as bratty non-Jewish toddler Angelica (voiced by Cheryl Chase) points out, doesn’t have any presents, and is somewhat more difficult to put in direct comparison to normalized, highly commercialized Christian American traditions like Christmas or Easter.
The central family of Rugrats, the Pickles, are comprised of a Jewish mother, Didi (Melanie Chartoff), Christian father Stu (Jack Riley), and bald baby protagonist Tommy (Elizabeth Daily). For “A Rugrats Passover,” they visit Didi’s Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant parents, Boris and Minka Kropotkin (also voiced by Chartoff), along with Angelica’s family, and the non-religious but amiably inquisitive Chuckie and Chas Finster. The Kropotkins, at one point accused by the Anti-Defamation League of being drawn from anti-Semitic stereotypes, speak with heavy Yiddish accents and sometimes even full Yiddish phrases, and they unabashedly love Judaism. Their love of their religious and cultural identity is perhaps more uncomplicated than their love of each other, as the episode hinges on Boris accidentally locking himself in the attic after insulting Minka’s family glassware.
As the children find their way out of the rickety playpen yet again, bypassing the adults’ bland Seder in which the completely unenthusiastic non-semitic Stu has been appointed head of the table in Boris’ place, a double narrative unfolds. Tommy, Chuckie, and Angelica get stuck in the attic with Boris and find themselves playing parts in his passionate, immersive defense of Passover as the best holiday, and the adults, bickering about the length of the Haggadah before dinner, one by one wander upstairs to look for the kids and all become the captive and enraptured audience. Eventually, Boris and Minka make up, and even Angelica agrees that, presents or no presents, this historical story deserves its own holiday.
Boris’ baby-friendly tale of sacrifice and intolerance, with Angelica as the Pharaoh, the babies as the enslaved Hebrews, and Tommy as Moses, is slightly altered for its audience. The most noticeable change is that the last of the Ten Plagues — the slaying of the firstborn — is tempered and changed to the “taking away” of the firstborn. This is still scary enough to a toddler Pharaoh Angelica to make her relent and agree to Moses’ demand to “let my babies go.” However, beyond some tongue-in-cheek mishaps from Chuckie, including building an upside-down pyramid, forgetting to put the yeast into the babies’ bread and thereby accidentally inventing matzah, and wiping off the “red paint” which would indicate a baby household for the Angel of Death to pass over, most of the story is kept intact. And, as is noted by many millennials going back to their favorite cartoons, Rugrats has enough sardonic humor and cinematic references throughout to interest an adult audience of any denomination.
The grand finale of the Passover story, Moses parting the Red Sea so the Israelites may flee the unrepentantly lying and selfish Pharaoh, is carried out in sweeping, iconic animation reminiscent of The Ten Commandments. Never mind that this is babies and toddlers — there is still a sense of wonder and recognition of smart, thoughtful interpretation of a tale told a million times over. In addition to its visual literacy, Rugrats understands and skillfully broadcasts narrative metaphor. Passover is meant to remind Jews to be thankful, humble, resourceful, and open to all those in need as we ourselves once were, and the twist of a Seder held in the attic by way of necessity is both a classic gag, and a successful embodiment of making the best out of any situation.
The Yiddish, Hebrew, matzah, parsley dipped in salt-water, yarmulkes, Haggadot, and kiddush glasses which populate the Kropotkins’ household are all integral parts of the episode, and for the most part, casually inserted — still something of a singularity in an animated landscape that largely uses Jewish characteristics as means to a joke. Because Passover is itself about the telling of a story, very little in the way of over-explanation has to happen to dull down Jewish identity. Instead, “A Rugrats Passover” is witty, culturally specific, and open to all without disrespecting its varied audience’s intelligence. It is a source of bright familiarity for its original viewing audience, a monumental piece of animated retelling within the constraints of a 22-minute episode, and a piece of media that belongs in a celebrated Jewish film canon like an orange belongs on a Seder plate.