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‘Rugrats’ Purim special has a grown-up lesson for wary US Jews

As antisemitism hits new highs amid the Israel-Hamas war, the cartoon adds to two past acclaimed holiday episodes with a message of courage and unity

Boris tells the children the story of Purim in 'Rugrats' holiday special, aired March 22, 2024 (Screenshot via Amazon Prime Video).
Boris tells the children the story of Purim in 'Rugrats' holiday special, aired March 22, 2024 (Screenshot via Amazon Prime Video).

The beloved children’s television show “Rugrats” surprised Jewish fans around the world with a special Purim episode on Friday, putting a youthful spin on an ancient battle for the Jewish nation’s survival as the modern-day Jewish state is fighting a battle of its own.

“Rugrats,” which originally aired on Nickelodeon from 1991 until 2004, follows a group of mischievous toddlers on their grand — mostly imaginary — adventures and features a significant amount of Jewish representation. All three of its co-creators, Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo, and Paul Germain, are Jewish. The main character, Tommy Pickles, has a Jewish mother and grandparents who speak in heavy Yiddish accents and are eager to tell the children about their Jewish heritage.

The show also made waves in the mid-1990s with its Passover and Hannukah specials achieving cult status among Jewish fans and garnering widespread critical acclaim. “A Rugrats Passover” was even nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.

“Rugrats” was rebooted in 2021 for Paramount +, the streaming service associated with CBS. The reboot has the same Jewish creators overseeing production and maintains the Jewish identity of Tommy and his mother’s family.

The 2024 Purim special features Tommy’s grandfather, Boris (played by Henry Winkler), gathering the children to hear the story of Purim while the babies play the characters in their imaginary version of the story.

Meanwhile, Tommy’s Uncle Jake teaches the parents how to make traditional hamantaschen cookies while reconciling being true to his Jewish identity with his desire to run a successful business via social media. His father, Boris, urges him toward tradition, while his mother, Minka, is more interested in reinventing herself and fitting in.

A lesson is learned about honoring heritage and traditions while leaving room for growth and change.

The episode features poignant dialogue about antisemitism, as a large majority of American Jews say they feel less secure in the US than they did a year ago. In a nod to the Jew-hatred that has gotten more aggressive since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, Tommy’s mother, Didi, tells the group that it’s “such a shame when people have to hide their identity because they’re afraid of what will happen if others see who they really are.”

Later on, inside the story, Mordechai, played by Tommy, tells Esther that she must appeal to King Ahasuerus because “if we’re not safe out there, you won’t be safe in here forever either.”

Mordechai speaks with Queen Esther in the ‘Rugrats’ holiday special, aired March 22, 2024 (Screenshot via Amazon Prime Video).

Like the Passover and Hannukah specials, Boris’s narration uses terms such as “Jewish” and “Hebrews” to describe the characters, and the in-story toddler characters substitute these words for “baby.” In the Passover episode, Tommy-as-Moses famously tells Pharaoh, “Let my babies go!”

Similarly, in a moment holding dramatic tension and comic relief, Tommy-as-Mordechai tells Haman: “I’m a baby. Babies don’t bow down to people — not even to kings! I can’t break the laws of my baby people.”

The episode received relatively little promotion from its network. However, it earned positive reviews from adults who watched it, including Lior Zaltzman of the online Jewish parenting magazine Kveller, who said that the show “did a truly great job.”

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