Yes, Virginia, 'Die Hard' is a Hanukkah Movie
Eight reasons the 1988 classic is a miracle for the Jews.
‘Die Hard’ is the Best Christmas Movie Ever Made!!
This cheerfully contrarian notion has become so pervasive that the film often airs in December alongside such acknowledged classics as It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story. But let’s be honest, other than the fact that it takes place on Christmas Eve and includes a few winking nods to the holiday (“NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO”), there’s really no justification for granting Die Hard a seat among the gods atop our cinematic yuletide Olympus.
But this doesn’t mean that Die Hard isn’t a fantastic holiday film. We’ve just been connecting it to the wrong winter holiday. With a nod to the eight candles on the menorah, here are eight reasons why Die Hard is actually The Best Hanukkah Movie Ever Made.
1) ’Tis the Season
Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve, and Christmas often overlaps with Hanukkah (like this year, for example). Seasonally, Die Hard is just as much a Hanukkah movie as a Christmas one.
2) Jingle tells
Die Hard is framed by two pieces of influential holiday music, both with Jewish connections: At the movie’s end, as bearer bonds drift over L.A. like snowflakes, the song playing in the background is “Let It Snow,” which was written during a 1945 California heat wave by Jewish songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. In the opening scene, the limo driver Argyle blasts Christmas in Hollis. Although this track was written and recorded by the (non Jewish) members of Run-DMC, it was produced by Rick Rubin, the Jewish co-founder of Def Jam Records, and inspired by their Jewish publicist, the legendary hip hop journalist Bill Adler.
Adler, who “grew up in a family of mouthy Jews” told the story on Rap Genius’s “Outside the Lines” podcast:
“I thought, let the guys write a new song, something that speaks to their lives, their neighborhood, and the ways in which they celebrate Christmas.”
The end result is a song that feels just as at home around a plate of latkes as a serving of collards. As Darryl “DMC” McDaniels puts it:
“I think the importance of food is a big part of the reason why that song was able to touch so many people…So not only does that record touch black people in the hood. It touches Jewish people, German people. It touches people all over the world.”
3) Schieß dem Fenster!
Hans Gruber is a member of the fictional radical group Volksfrei — a name that invokes the infamous Nazi slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Makes You Free”) which adorned the gates to Auschwitz. And while Gruber is no Nazi, this movie features the most gleeful dispatching of German bad guys since Castle Wolfenstein, and not seen again until Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. And when Gruber orders his henchman to “shoot the glass!” he causes John McClane’s bare feet to suffer through their own personal Kristallnacht.
4) A Tale Told By A Jewish Scribe
I asked Steven E. deSouza, the screenwriter who co-wrote the screenplay to Die Hard, about his Jewish identity, and his thoughts on DHITBHMEM. deSouza confirmed he is a “practicing Jew,” who lights candles, supports his local synagogue, and sent his kids to Jewish day school. Then he told me about his ancestors, who were Spanish and Portuguese Jews that fled the Spanish Inquisition and settled in Jamaica in the 1600’s. Among them was Moses Cohen Henriques, whom deSouza describes as “a Jewish pirate who was an associate of Henry Morgan, and who particularly (and for obvious reasons) relished targeting Spanish ships.”
And there were other elements of deSouza’s family history that informed his penchant for penning action-packed thrillers:
“My father was a US naval officer in the Pacific theater in WWII…[He] taught me to use firearms when I was a teenager as what seemed to him a normal rite of passage…And in fact I gave my son a rifle for a Bar Mitzvah present, and only the reaction from other parents made me realize, hmm, apparently this seems strange in a Jewish family (but boy does this familiarity make all my gunfight scenes authentic). My youngest grandchild is named after a great-great-great grandfather on his Ashkenazi grandmother’s side, who was a prize fighter and actor in (fellow Jew) Bronco Billy Anderson’s silent westerns. So unlike many other Jewish families, I heard no direct stories about the Holocaust, or relatives lost to it. Instead, [I heard] stories about ancestors who were swashbuckling.”
So there you have it — Die Hard was written by a bad-ass Jamaican-American Jewish descendant of pirates and action heroes.
5) Tower of Power
In both Die Hard and the Hanukkah story, there is a building at the center of the story. In the Hanukkah story, the climactic moment comes when Judah Maccabee and his small band of guerrilla warriors defeat the mighty Greek army and reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from its villainous invaders. Likewise In Die Hard, Nakatomi Plaza must be reclaimed by our hero and cleansed of its villainous invaders.
6) Light and Miracles
Hanukkah celebrates bringing light into a world of darkness. In Die Hard, Hans repeatedly strives to snuff out the lights — first, by shooting out the police search lights during the siege, and then by darkening an entire city block in order to override the electromagnetic seal on the last of the seven locks in the Nakatomi vault (which deSouza told me reminded him of the Temple’s inner sanctuary). Hans values material wealth above human life, and so for him, this darkening leads to a perverse sense of the miraculous. As Hans gloats, “You asked for miracles, Theo, I give you the F.B.I.”
7) The Importance of Being J-Mac
Like John McClane (the other J-MAC), Hanukkah hero Judah Maccabee was outnumbered and outgunned, but he was able to use his homemade sling to pick off his enemies and turn the Greek’s superior firepower against them (“NOW I HAVE A SWORD AND CHARIOT HO-HO-HO”).
8) Alexander Wept
Here’s the deeper connection between Die Hard and Hanukkah — as much as they are stories about a victory against outside invaders, they are also meditations on an internal clash of cultures, and the struggle of the “good guys” with ambivalent feelings towards a world that is rapidly shifting under their (bloody) feet.
In the first third of Die Hard, the greatest source of tension isn’t a looming terrorist takeover of Nakatomi Plaza. It’s lifelong New Yorker McClane’s palpable anxiety at the prospect of living in L.A. With his signature puckered smirk, Willis greats every signifier of California living with a helpless mixture of bemusement and contempt. “Fuckin’ California!” is his rallying cry long before “Yippee-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker!” To make matters worse, he sees how his wife Holly is slipping away from him and into this new way of life — her name, her status, her job, her driven boss and her cokehead coworkers. And Holly resents John’s selfish, possessive attempts to blame their failing marriage on her desire to pursue success on the west coast. BUT: the focus of their battle quickly shifts when both Holly and John are faced with a much larger existential threat from an external invader. They must quickly decide what values they share (loyalty, love, survival) and which they can jettison (jealousy, pride, materialism).
The arrival of Greek culture in ancient Palestine presented similar challenges to the more traditional segments of the indigenous Jewish population, and the Hanukkah story begins with the Jewish people fighting viciously amongst themselves — farmers vs. urbanites, fundamentalists vs. assimilationists, Hellenists vs. zealots. As with the Die Hard story, it is only when confronted with an external threat (the draconian anti-Jewish decrees of King Antiochus IV) that all these Jewish factions finally band together to fight for a common cause: their very survival!
So yes, Virginia, in ways both large and small, Die Hard is a Hanukkah movie. Go ahead and watch it with your latkes instead of your Chinese food, and as you gather around the candles, take Sergeant Al Powell’s words to heart: “Light ’em if you got ‘em!” Yippee CHAI Yay, Menorah-lovers!